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Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi has done the right thing in overriding objections from his own party to the ban on donations to individual politicians from firms and other interest groups. His decision, first unveiled in a meeting with opposition party heads Wednesday, paves the way for the enactment of a revision to the Political Funds Control Law during the current Diet session in time for enforcement on Jan. 1.

This development should be welcome, but it does not warrant any complacency. Politicians want to create loopholes in laws when their own personal interests are at stake, and we must make sure that they don’t do so this time; otherwise, “money politics” will continue to dominate the nation’s political system.

The proposed amendment to the relevant law will not entirely stop the flow of corporate or organized money to individual politicians. Take the Liberal Democratic Party. LDP politicians have at least three legal channels available for the collection of money. The most prominent — the one that will be affected by the ban — is the fund-management group controlled by individual politicians. The other two are “koenkai” support groups and local party chapters.

Currently, fund-management groups (only one is allowed for each politician) can collect up to 500,000 yen a year from one business firm or interest group. While koenkai are not allowed to receive funds directly from a corporate benefactor, they can do so indirectly through fundraising parties. Local party chapters are nominally subordinate to party organizations, but in most cases they are controlled by Diet members or would-be party candidates in a national election and serve as a conduit for the flow of political funds. Depending upon their size, the contributing businesses and interest groups are free to channel anywhere between 7.5 million yen and 10 million yen a year to the party chapters.

When the current Political Funds Control Law was revised five years ago under Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, the legislation only mandated a further revision of the law by the end of this year to ban the flow of corporate and organized money to individual politicians. The fact that the LDP has grudgingly accepted a ban on political donations to fund-management groups perhaps stems from the understanding that politicians may still have access to corporate and organized money through koenkai and local party chapters that they control. Apparently, LDP executives are even maneuvering to expand the number of local party chapters so as to enable local politicians to receive corporate money after the ban is in place.

The current Political Funds Control Law makes little attempt to staunch the flow of corporate and organized money to party-controlled political fund groups, merely calling for a “review” of the system by the end of this year. Hence, nothing has been done on this front, and Mr. Obuchi himself did not mention it during the party leaders’ debate this week.

The prevailing argument within the LDP is that it is wrong to brand all corporate political donations as evil. This sentiment, however, is somewhat at odds with the voters’ general view. Business firms and interest groups are not charitable organizations. They are organized to pursue profits or interests as specified in their charters. Whether directed to political parties or individual politicians, political donations from businesses or interest groups usually come with strings attached. There is always a quid pro quo, barely distinguishable from bribery.

Ultimately, therefore, all the doors must be shut to the present cozy relationship between politicians and businesses, a bond frequently oiled by money. Individual politicians should not be allowed to get away with inserting loopholes in the upcoming revision of the law. To cut the back-scratching ties between politicians and businesses in general, a definite time frame must be set to outlaw political donations from businesses and interest groups to political parties as well.

Indeed, a democracy, particularly the get-elected-by-all-means type of machinery we have in place today, is an expensive affair to run. In opposing a ban on business donations to individual politicians, LDP politicians have argued that Japan has yet to establish a tradition of individual contributions to political causes. But that is, at best, a chicken-and-egg argument. As a matter of fact, not all political parties in Japan rely on corporate largess, and there are ways to run election campaigns without literally throwing money around. The bottom line is, “money politics” corrupts the nation’s political culture.

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