During the last Diet session, the tripartite alliance of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito voted a host of key bills into law on the back of their numerical strength. But not all major bills were cleared. Among them is a measure to ban corporate donations to politicians.

Banning such donations is long overdue. The measure in question would have put the ban into effect next January. The failure to take action represents a breach of promise on the part of the Diet, which in 1995 passed a law calling for the abolition of corporate donations to individual politicians five years hence. The legislature must make good on its promise if it is to restore public trust in national politics.

The LDP is primarily responsible for this inaction. It has shown little enthusiasm to prohibit politicians from accepting funds from private corporations. Instead, it has sought ways of keeping open this questionable route to campaign funding. Indeed, the party is moving against the tide of history.

The Recruit bribery scandals of the late 1980s exposed the shady ties between businesses and politicians, making it all too apparent that fundraising from private companies would strengthen cozy ties between government and businesses and breed political corruption. In January 1995, therefore, restrictions on such donations were tightened under an amended law regulating the flow of political campaign funds.

Specifically, donations to each politician were limited to not more than 500,000 yen a year. At the same time it was agreed upon, in a proviso, that a measure to ban such donations would be put in place five years later. In return for the tightened curbs on corporate contributions, a public funding system for political parties was introduced to help finance parties’ political activities with tax money.

The non-LDP ruling coalition that came into being in 1993 was the first to introduce a bill banning business donations to politicians. Although the bill got through the Lower House, it was rejected by the Upper House. The ruling parties and the opposition LDP struck a compromise deal calling for a five-year moratorium through January 2000.

Since returning power, however, the LDP has been trying to put the issue on the back burner, saying that it is “difficult” to prohibit business donations unless increased individual donations are assured, and that banning business contributions from next year is “unrealistic.” Even Mr. Ichiro Ozawa, the reform-minded leader of the LP, says it is “fundamentally wrong to think that corporate donations are evil and individual donations are good.”

As things stand, the ruling and opposition parties agree that this issue should be concluded before an extraordinary Diet session in the autumn. But there is no assurance that the “conclusion” will be a positive one. Chances are the ban will not take effect in January unless the LDP changes its negative stance.

An LDP survey shows that the party’s Diet members received a total of 40 billion yen in business donations in 1997. By contrast, individual donations and membership dues totaled only 3.1 billion yen. These figures eloquently tell that banning corporate donations will directly hit the pockets of LDP legislators. However, they have only themselves to blame for their long failure to solicit individual donations.

The political parties annually receive more than 30 billion yen in government subsidies. This is a large amount of money, yet the ruling parties argue that business donations should be continued because a lot more money is needed for political activities. That argument is as selfish as it is untenable.

Tightening restrictions on business corporations and the introduction of the political subsidy system, along with the creation of a single-seat district/proportional representation system for the Lower House, have been the highlights of political reform in the past decade. These measures are designed to develop less costly, policy-oriented politics. But funding scandals continue, indicating that politicians have a way of seeking loopholes to build up their campaign war chests.

Diet members, particularly those of the ruling parties, are creating public mistrust by their reluctance to clean up their own fundraising practices. It is unconscionable to shut their eyes to campaign fund irregularities while demanding strict ethics in the civil service. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has rightly called for “a forthright solution” to this protracted problem of corporate donations to politicians. The only way to solve it is to ban such contributions once and for all, beginning next January as originally scheduled.

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