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The political ethics issue confronts the new administration of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. The question at stake is whether Japan will be able to put an end to the politics of patronage.

The recent arrest of former Construction Minister Eiichi Nakao, who allegedly took 30 million yen in bribes from a construction company while he was in office, is a sobering reminder that influence-peddling, pork-distributing politics is still alive if not well. According to Tokyo public prosecutors, Nakao is charged with having tried to arrange for the firm to get a lucrative contract from the ministry, a charge Nakao denies.

Plans now in the works would provide criminal penalties for Diet members who request or receive bribes in return for political patronage. A similar but broader proposal to stamp out political corruption was made about two years ago, in spring 1998, by the then ruling parties — the Liberal Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party and Sakigake. That plan fell through, when the LDP changed its mind at the last minute.

In protest, the SDP and Sakigake broke with the LDP. As a result, in the Upper House election held in the summer of the same year the LDP suffered a stunning defeat, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. This time around, following Nakao’s arrest, New Komeito moved quickly to support an antibribery bill, showing a contrast with the LDP, which had been passive toward such legislation.

In the June 25 Lower House election New Komeito campaigned jointly with the LDP, but to no avail; it lost 11 seats, down sharply from its pre-election strength of 42. To revive its fortune Komeito must demonstrate “originality” — the ethics bill is a case in point — in next year’s Upper House election. That could be a “make-or-break” vote that would give the party the option of changing the balance of power in the second chamber.

During the special Diet session held after the latest election, four opposition parties — the Democratic Party of Japan, the Liberal Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the SDP — introduced their own antibribery bill. It is essentially the same as the one introduced in the Upper House in May last year by the DPJ, Komeito, the SDP and a minor Upper House group. With Komeito now pushing for a similar measure, the opposition parties are trying to drive a wedge in the ruling coalition.

Meanwhile, the three ruling parties — the LDP, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party — are moving toward introducing a joint bill of their own. New Komeito chief Takenori Kanzaki has indicated that it will have more teeth than the opposition version. The Liberal Party, before breaking with the coalition — a move that created the splinter NCP — presented a bill that would prohibit local government heads and assembly members, not just national legislators, from meddling with bidding on public-works projects. That bill went up in smoke with the dissolution of the Lower House.

The LDP strongly believes that bringing supporters’ petitions to the attention of bureaucrats is a legitimate political activity. So the party has in the past consistently opposed a more extensive antibribery bill, on the grounds that it would hamper “day-to-day political activities.” The LDP is now moving toward joint legislation, but given the still wide disagreements that exist among the coalition partners, the road ahead looks bumpy.

Political corruption has long been a big thorn in the side of LDP administrations. Quite a few LDP politicians, including former Cabinet ministers, have been involved in bribery scandals. Although some have been convicted, it has been difficult to establish evidence of bribery. This is because the current antibribery law says only those who have received bribes by exercising their “official powers” are punishable. To establish the fact of bribe-taking it must be proved that an “entreaty” for patronage was made.

By contrast, the antibribery bill now under consideration would punish politicians who have received bribes in return for their services in arranging for contracts and other favors through government offices involved. Whether the bribe is received as a result of exercising “official powers” is not an essential condition for punishment.

In the past, moves to make a tougher ethics law developed momentum every time a corruption scandal broke out. But those moves were stonewalled by the LDP. Opposition members tabled various anticorruption bills, but to no avail. Were it not for the arrest of former Construction Minister Nakao, the new antibribery bill would not have received as much political attention as it has.

It is a pity that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori is taking a back seat on this issue. At a press conference after reorganizing his Cabinet, he said: “It is a shame that politicians should be restrained by law. The important thing is that they do what they believe is right. It is not good to limit their free activities.” One wonders whether he realizes that corruption continues because politicians themselves are not ashamed of practicing the politics of patronage.

From next January, the central government will be reorganized. Although the number of ministries will be cut almost in half, the shakeup will also create mammoth ministries with a wide range of regulatory powers. Politicians will likely engage more actively in the policymaking process under the pretext of taking the “political initiative.”

The danger is that political corruption will continue and even increase unless a tough anticorruption law is enacted. The LDP holds the key. Unfortunately there is talk that a coalition bill — if it is worked out — will not reach the Diet floor until after mid-September, when an extraordinary session is expected to open.

Mori says, quite rightly, that public confidence is essential to politics. But the public will not trust the LDP unless it breaks its old habit of putting off “sensitive issues” until the dust settles and then taking no action and pretending that nothing happened. They should, as the saying goes, strike while the iron is hot.

In the final analysis, what counts most is an ethical sense on the part of individual politicians and administrators. The public, of course, is calling strongly for the establishment of political ethics. LDP legislators, Prime Minister Mori included, must listen humbly to this public outcry. Otherwise, the Mori administration will suffer another setback in the Upper House election scheduled for summer 2001.

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