The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been busy setting up new chapters across the country. If the move was aimed at expanding party activities to put politicians, not bureaucrats, in the driver’s seat, or to improve its local programs in tandem with devolution, it would be fine. But the new chapters are designed to effectively serve as conduits for raising campaign funds.

Local legislators find it impossible to receive donations from private corporations and interest groups because the legal prohibition of such donations to individual politicians came into effect in January. The new chapters are being created to get around this prohibition so that individual legislators can continue to take contributions from corporate supporters. But expanding the chapter network for this purpose runs counter to campaign reform. Ways should be found to plug the loopholes.

The ban on group donations to individual politicians is based on a proviso in the revised Political Fund Control Law that went into force in January 1995. That clause, which was the product of political compromise, said such donations would be prohibited in five years.

The LDP had tried to put the ban on hold indefinitely on the grounds that the climate for individual donations was not yet ripe. As it turned out, however, the party was obliged to accept a five-year moratorium under the pressure of public opinion. But it had its way with business donations to political parties. No new restrictions or prohibitive measures were imposed although another proviso in the campaign-fundraising law calls for a “review” of the practice.

As a result, Diet members who head party chapters in their respective constituencies can still receive corporate donations through these branches. Obviously, the LDP accepted the ban on corporate donations to individual politicians because it thought the measure would have little practical impact on individual Diet members.

But the ban has dealt a heavy blow to local legislators who do not head chapters and therefore do not have alternative conduits for business donations. Some of them reportedly complain that they cannot even pay the wages of their secretaries. By creating more chapters, the LDP is throwing a lifeline, so to speak, to those cash-strapped legislators.

Members of prefectural assemblies and municipal assemblies in major cities are allowed to set up chapters if they each secure at least 50 new dues-paying party members. In Tokyo, for example, already 50 members of the Metropolitan Assembly have established chapters. Other local legislators are reportedly following suit. Diet members, meanwhile, are likely to step up efforts to collect business donations through existing chapters.

Before the ban took effect, corporate donations to individual politicians were limited by law to 500,000 yen a year from each corporation. By contrast, a corporation is still allowed to give anywhere between 7.5 million yen to 100 million yen a year, depending on its business scale, to any number of parties and chapters.

If chapters are increasingly used as channels for corporate donations, it will not only take the teeth out of the ban, but will also mean that de facto donations to individual politicians are now freer than in the past when the 500,000 yen-a-year cap was placed. It is impermissible that the legal prohibition should be effectively emasculated by dubious devices.

Obviously, the LDP is trying to cast aside the basic goal of revamping the campaign fundraising system: to sever cozy ties between politicians and businesses through gradual contraction of corporate donations. The ban on business contributions to individual politicians is the centerpiece of such reform. Creating loopholes in this measure is turning back the clock.

The LDP should stop expanding its network of chapters for fundraising purposes and place tighter restrictions on donations received through these local units. Instead of depending on business largess, it should make serious efforts to increase party membership dues and individual donations. The LDP justifies the need for corporate donations on the grounds that there are few conditions in Japan that “nurture” individual donations. That kind of reasoning sounds like an excuse for avoiding or postponing necessary reforms.

Scandals involving politics and money are again stirring controversy in the Diet. It seems that politicians have never really learned the lessons of the Recruit scandal of the late 1980s, which rocked the political world and spread voters’ mistrust of politicians. Establishing a transparent relationship between money and politics, and thereby restoring public confidence in politics, remains an urgent priority.

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