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The economic debate in the Diet appears to be distracting legislators from an issue that is no less important: political ethics. It would be a great pity if this issue were to be sidelined under the pretext of prioritizing economic-recovery measures. Recent developments involving scandal-tainted politicians point up the need for tougher legislation to sever the ties that bind politics and money.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court upheld former Construction Minister Kishiro Nakamura’s conviction for receiving a cash bribe from a construction company. What is more, two officials of the Liberal Democratic Party’s chapter in Nagasaki Prefecture were arrested on suspicion of taking illegal donations from local public works contractors.

These are just the latest in a long series of political corruption cases that have hit the headlines over the years. Most cases involve public works projects. Influential politicians, using their ties to bureaucrats, see to it that contracts go to firms they favor, and receive cash in return for their mediatory roles. At election time, those contractors can be counted on to collect votes.

It is true that the Diet has taken various measures to prevent bribery. But the public remains largely skeptical about their effectiveness. As long as political donations are available from public works contractors, there is always the possibility of bribery in the name of bona-fide contributions. One solution is to ban donations from firms that get job contracts from public offices.

Nakamura, a former LDP Diet member with friends in the construction industry, applied pressure on the Fair Trade Commission to withhold action against builders suspected of rigging bids on public contracts, according to prosecutors. And he received a large amount of cash from a major contractor as a reward for his effort.

During the trial, Nakamura consistently denied he had taken a bribe, saying the money was a legitimate donation. The Supreme Court, however, rejected his appeal — for a convincing reason: “Working on the FTC to not take action is an attempt to unduly influence its judgment and hamper the exercise of its authority.”

The statement is a stern warning against the “politics of pork,” for which the LDP is largely responsible. Reportedly, however, there is not much of a sense of crisis in the party, suggesting that not a few party members acquiesce in political intercession in public construction projects.

In Nagasaki, the two men involved, including the chapter’s secretary general, are charged with violation of the public election law, which prohibits public works contractors from making donations in connection with elections for local governments that award them contracts. The rub is that lines between legal and illegal donations are admittedly fuzzy. Still, their arrest should send a wake-up call to politicians who think that they will be immune from punishment as long as the money they receive doesn’t violate the campaign finance law.

This law needs to be updated by including a ban on donations from public works contractors. A bill for this purpose, introduced by opposition parties during last year’s regular Diet session, is still pending. It should be enacted during the current session. By so doing, the Diet can comply with public hopes that it will fulfill its key role in purifying politics. New Komeito, a coalition partner, appears ready to get on board. Mr. Takenori Kanzaki, the party leader, has said “quantitative and qualitative limits” should be placed on these donations.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has also spoken of the need to cap contributions from public works contractors. However, his party has reacted strongly to the remark, calling it “unrealistic.” Responding to a question from an opposition legislator during a Budget Committee debate earlier this week, the prime minister said only that “the party is studying the matter.”

It is unlikely that donations from constructors have no strings attached, particularly given the deep slump in the construction industry. This is not to say all strings should be removed; some may be motivated to promote legitimate political activity. Nevertheless, donations from contractors who have received debt forgiveness or those in bankruptcy proceedings are bound to arouse public suspicion.

The LDP, for its part, must cast off its image as a scandal-tainted party. Last year alone, three of its legislators had to resign and one was arrested. Yet its new action plan, approved by a party convention earlier this month, says almost nothing about fighting corruption. To restore public trust in politics, Prime Minister Koizumi should take the initiative to establish political ethics.

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