Lower House member Muneo Suzuki was recently arrested by the Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office on charges of accepting a bribe in an influence-peddling scandal. Following the arrest, the Lower House approved a nonbinding motion demanding Suzuki resign as a lawmaker. This was the second such motion approved, and the first such motion endorsed for a Lower House member.
Suzuki has denied the allegations against him, which showed money politics is rampant in Japan. Practitioners of such politics tamper with government policies through influence peddling and use political donations they collect from companies to expand their influence.
Pork-barrel politics was established under the LDP administrations that have ruled Japan for the past half century. Opposition Liberal Party chief Ichiro Ozawa, a one-time member of the LDP leadership group, says influence-peddling scandals will never end until the LDP eliminates its dependence on pork-barrel politics. The question is: Do LDP leaders have any sense of responsibility for salvaging Japan’s corrupt politics?
Suzuki also allegedly exerted strong influence on Foreign Ministry policies, especially regarding aid projects in the Russian-held Northern Territories.
In a report published in March, the Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Suzuki, formerly deputy chief Cabinet secretary and director general of the Hokkaido and Okinawa Development Agency, was deeply involved in determining the eligibility of bidders for government contracts. The report said Suzuki’s involvement in ministry affairs was abnormal and unacceptable.
Amid the uproar over the Suzuki scandal, the three-party ruling coalition worked out an agreement for making contacts between politicians and bureaucrats more transparent. Under this agreement, when lawmakers make difficult requests to bureaucrats, the latter must report them to the Cabinet minister in charge. The minister deals with the problems on his or her responsibility. The agreement merits praise for giving the minister a major role in preventing politicians’ unfair meddling in government affairs.
However, whatever rules are established will have only limited effects in making politico-bureaucratic contacts transparent, unless all relevant information is disclosed on request.
The LDP’s long-standing practice of reviewing in advance all government-sponsored bills must be abolished. This system breeds collusion between lawmakers with vested interests and bureaucrats, and makes Diet debate on legislation meaningless. By ending this practice, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should establish a political leadership system with the power centering on the prime minister, as he pledged.
There has been little progress in legal changes for establishing political ethics, despite Koizumi’s promise to push them. The LDP is reluctant to implement such changes.
The opposition forces have introduced in the Diet legislation for revising the Political Funds Control Law to ban public-works contractors from making political donations at least for a year after winning contracts. Last March Koizumi instructed the ruling coalition to consider tightening restrictions on political donations by public-works contractors. However, the LDP is unwilling to support the idea, saying there is nothing wrong with companies’ political donations.
Corporate donations to individual politicians are now banned. However, the ban has a loophole, allowing local chapters of political parties to serve as fronts for receiving funds. The LDP is reluctant to plug this loophole.
The opposition forces also proposed that city mayors and lawmakers’ private secretaries be added to legislators’ private secretaries among those subject to punishment under the revised influence-peddling law. The ruling coalition, however, approved an amendment in the Lower House for adding only lawmakers’ private secretaries among those punishable. The coalition is unwilling to make politics more transparent.
There are other problems. Suzuki, who was forced to leave the LDP in connection with the scandal, retains his Lower House seat and says he has no intention of resigning. He was elected in the 2000 general election, in which he topped the list of LDP proportional-representation candidates in the Hokkaido voting bloc. In the proportional-representation system, people vote for parties, not individual candidates. Since Suzuki left the party, it would be logical to say he lost voter confidence.
The Diet should establish a rule under which politicians elected in a proportional-representation system lose their seats if they leave their party. The proportional-representation system does not cover “independents.” The LDP itself voted for Suzuki’s ouster in the Lower House vote.
Suzuki’s arrest was a shock because he was considered a leading contender for the job of prime minister in the LDP’s largest faction, headed by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Once led by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who was arrested in the Lockheed payoff scandal, it has dominated Japanese politics, producing prime ministers Noboru Takeshita, Hashimoto and Keizo Obuchi.
Suzuki was among the top political fundraisers. He allegedly expanded his influence by giving funds to younger lawmakers. If the funds were derived from Suzuki’s influence-peddling activities, it can be assumed that some aspiring prime ministers are money-powered politicians.
Koichi Kato, formerly LDP secretary general and a leading contender for the prime ministership, was forced to resign from the Diet in April after his top aide was implicated in a tax-evasion scandal.
Political leaders are expected to show direction for Japan’s future course, establish diplomatic and economic visions and conduct selfless politics. The tragedy for Japanese politics is that a person smeared with scandals was considered a potential candidate for prime minister.
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