The indictment last week of Lower House member Muneo Suzuki on fresh charges of bribery is a reminder that money politics is alive — if not well — and that genuine political reform remains a long way off. Public prosecutors are reportedly building new cases against him for possible campaign-fund abuse and perjury. The multifaceted corruption scandal involving the former Liberal Democratic Party power broker has yet to be unraveled.
The sad fact is that collusion between politicians and businesses has continued in one form or another since the 1980s, when bribery scandals began to proliferate. One of the most controversial cases was the so-called Recruit scandal in which an up-and-coming job-magazine publisher sought favors from key politicians by selling them large numbers of lucrative unlisted shares in his subsidiary firm.
The stock-for-favors scandal, which brought down an entire Cabinet, sparked extensive debates on political reform. So far, however, nothing much appears to have changed. During the last Diet session, which ended in July, money affairs cost several legislators, including a former LDP secretary general and a former foreign minister, their seats.
It is true that the regular session passed a number of ethics bills, including measures to tighten penalties for influence-peddling for private gain and to prevent bureaucratic intervention in public-works bidding. These laws, however, do not go far enough. For example, the revision to the antigraft law, now applicable to Diet members’ private secretaries as well, is long overdue; it was first proposed by opposition parties two years ago.
That aside, the Diet has done little to tackle the ethics issue head on. The proposals submitted by a Lower House reform panel to the speaker last November have been all but forgotten. The plan for basic ethics legislation has been shelved for all practical purposes. There are no active moves to overhaul the scandalous system of government-paid parliamentary secretaries. Already two legislators, including former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, have resigned amid allegations that they misused their aides’ salaries.
The tough action taken by the U.S. House of Representatives about a month ago provides food for thought. The House passed a resolution disqualifying a member convicted of tax evasion and bribery. In Japan, too, a Diet member may be denied his or her seat under the Constitution or the Diet law. In reality, however, it is difficult even to submit a nonbinding resolution calling for his or her resignation.
Such a move is usually opposed on the grounds that the decision to resign or not to resign is best left to the legislator involved and that a Diet member holds such an important position that he or she should not be lightly dismissed. Plausibly for these reasons, more than a few members have been spared a parliamentary call for resignation.
In the case of former Upper House member Tatsuo Tomobe, who was indicted for bribery, the Diet did pass a resolution calling for his exit, but the legislator simply ignored the nonbinding vote. Public confidence in the legislature has been further eroded each time the Diet failed to do anything about a misbehaving member.
Influence-peddling, as exemplified by the Suzuki scandal, is a deep-seated practice that stands in the way of political reform. Many Diet members appear to believe that this practice — playing a “mediatory role” to help supporters in their constituencies — is an integral part of political activity. Breaking with this notion is the first step toward establishing a stricter code of ethics.
Former Health and Labor Minister Kazuaki Miyaji, who was forced to resign his post over a money scandal, seemed to speak the truth when he said, “If you’re a Diet member, this (peddling influence) happens from time to time.” He was accused of arranging “backdoor” college admissions for his supporters’ sons. A survey by a government workers union finds that about two in 10 have received various requests for intermediary and other services from Diet members over the past three years.
Of course, not all such activities on the part of legislators are illegal, but there is no doubt that influence-peddling is a gray zone that often borders criminality. To draw a line between legitimate and questionable political activities, individual legislators must first change their mind-set. The message is pure and simple: It is wrong to use political influence for private gain.
There is no time limit set for establishing political ethics, but if action is unduly delayed, the public will become even more cynical about politics and politicians. The torch of political reform must be kept burning, particularly in hard times such as these.
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