Former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka’s resignation from the Diet on Friday was a surprise even though her political fortunes had waned visibly in recent months amid a smoldering money scandal. Did she take responsibility for the “trouble” she had caused? Was she unable to bear the brunt of public criticism?
At a brief press conference, Tanaka gave two reasons: First, she had been deprived of political freedom, like a “bird with clipped wings,” because of a two-year suspension of her membership in the Liberal Democratic Party. Second, with a cloud of doubt still hanging over the scandal in spite of her efforts to clear herself, she had no choice but to resign to help restore public confidence in politics.
Her resignation recalls the arrest of her father, the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, on bribery charges 26 years ago. On that hot July day, the nation had a rude awakening to money politics. It is a great irony of fate that his daughter now finds herself in political limbo for essentially the same reason.
Mrs. Makiko Tanaka, a vocal advocate of political reform, debuted as the nation’s first female foreign minister in April 2001. She won public applause for her hard-hitting attempt to rejuvenate a crusted ministry, becoming the second most popular Cabinet minister after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But the wheel of fortune went into reverse as suspicion surfaced that she might have misappropriated the salaries of her government-paid secretaries.
It is ironic, indeed, that despite her repeated appeals for political housecleaning Mrs. Tanaka herself has come to be seen as a purveyor of money politics. But blaming her alone misses the point. She is the fourth legislator to quit the Diet so far this year over money scandals. Her resignation is a reminder that establishing higher standards of political ethics is an urgent task for politicians.
The Tanaka scandal broke in April when popular weeklies reported she might have pocketed part of the money paid to her legislative aides. However, neither the LDP nor the Diet moved swiftly to investigate. In the meantime, Mrs. Tanaka appeared to take a “wait-and-see” attitude, as if it were a scandal involving someone else.
It was only toward the close of the Diet session in July that the Lower House opened a hearing. But Mrs. Tanaka was unwilling, or maybe unable, to produce hard evidence, saying she was “not in charge” and had “no details on hand” — thus raising more questions than she answered. The LDP, meanwhile, suspended her party membership on the grounds that she had refused to cooperate in its inquiry.
The focal question now is whether Mrs. Tanaka’s resignation will mean her retirement from politics. Being a tough-minded politician, she might try to make a comeback by running in a future Lower House election. Or she might just return to the life of an ordinary citizen, leaving her checkered political career behind. Whichever course she takes, one thing is clear: The issue of political ethics is here to stay.
The resignation does not absolve her from all blame. She still has the responsibility of accounting for the pay scandal. It is never too late to tell the truth. In the final analysis, that is the only way to restore the public’s trust. She must have the courage to tell all if she wants to return to politics in the future. The fundamental problem with her — and other money-tainted politicians before her — is the lack of accountability.
This year alone, three other legislators have lost their Diet seats over financial irregularities: Mr. Koichi Kato, former LDP secretary general; Mr. Yutaka Inoue, former president of the Upper House; and Ms. Kiyomi Tsujimoto, former policy chief of the Social Democratic Party. Their resignations followed a disturbing pattern in which their initial attempts to clarify questions fizzled out. The same thing has happened to many other misbehaving politicians over the past decades. In almost all cases, resignation from the Diet was considered synonymous with purification. Mrs. Tanaka must not follow this route if she hopes to regain voter confidence.
Sadly, the ties that bind politics and money remain deeply embedded in the nation’s politics. Many politicians have gotten caught in the quicksand of corruption. People may well feel a sense of desperation over the sorry state of political morality. Yet leaving solutions to voluntary efforts by individual politicians is like asking for the moon.
There must be tough common rules to govern the conduct of politicians. In this regard, the last Diet session fell far short of expectations. To be sure, it updated the antigraft law but left some loopholes unplugged. Political reform remains a pressing priority for the national legislature.
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