The history of the Liberal Democratic Party includes a long list of money scandals. The recent arrest of Lower House lawmaker Takanori Sakai, charged with violating the Political Funds Control Law, is the latest reminder.

One of the most extensive scandals in memory was the 1988 Recruit Scandal, which involved political leaders, senior bureaucrats and business executives. The subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s Cabinet changed the political landscape.

Political reform legislation has since been enacted to clean up politics, yet scandals continue to crop up. Now under Diet scrutiny is the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, Tadamori Oshima, who is linked to a scandal involving his former aide.

At the root of these scandals are the shady ties among politicians, bureaucrats and executives. Unless this triangle of collusion is demolished, the likes of Sakai will not disappear, and the public will become even more mistrustful of politics.

Perhaps the most dramatic scandal was the 1976 Lockheed case, in which former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested and indicted on bribery charges.

In the Recruit case, more than 70 politicians, bureaucrats and managers received lucrative stock shares from a real estate affiliate before it went public. Earlier this month, the Tokyo District Court delivered a guilty verdict on the former Recruit chairman, Hiromasa Ezoe. Among the political heavyweights who received Recruit Cosmos shares were former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, then-Prime Minister Takeshita and members of his administration, as well as opposition leaders. The high-profile scandal triggered a stormy debate on political reform that eventually split the LDP, putting an end to its monopoly on power and setting off a wave of party realignments.

Also involved in the stock-for-favors scandal were so-called new LDP leaders — namely, Kiichi Miyazawa, Shintaro Abe and Michio Watanabe, plus younger stalwarts regarded as future leaders like Koichi Kato. In a way, the scandal has caused a dearth of clean leaders, leaving the party with few people fit to succeed Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Former Construction Minister Kishiro Nakamura, indicted in 1994 on charges of taking bribes from construction contractors, demonstrated extraordinary “staying power.” For the next nine years he retained his Diet seat, winning big in two Lower House elections. He quit in January when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal. Nakamura, who was elected for the first time in 1976 at the age of 27, received a citation in 2001 for his 25 years of service as a Diet member.

How is it that he was able to remain a Diet member for so many years after his indictment? Part of the answer lies with the voters in his constituency, particularly the local association of supporters that served as his vote-getting machine.

In the same month that Nakamura was convicted, two officials of the LDP chapter in Nagasaki Prefecture were arrested for soliciting illegal contributions from local public-works constructors — something that was said to occurred over the years on an almost routine basis.

To ensure transparency in political activity, the Political Funds Control Law requires politicians to report all donations exceeding 50,000 yen a year. Lawmaker Sakai allegedly concealed 120 million yen from a job-placement firm over five years. Prosecutors call it a serious violation of the campaign finance law.

Suspected falsification of political funds reports, however, may be only part of the reason for his arrest. It seems that the money received is said to have been intended as a bribe.

Sakai was a member of the “labor tribe,” having served as parliamentary vice minister for labor affairs and as chairman of the Lower House Welfare and Labor Committee. During the period when he is accused of receiving the contributions, a legislative revision was enacted allowing firms that send out temporary workers to expand their services.

Five years ago, at a session of the Lower House Budget Committee, the deputy chairman of the LDP’s Policy Council, Tsuneo Suzuki, reprimanded an LDP colleague for a breach of political ethics after he was charged with violating the Securities and Exchange Law. The suspect committed suicide immediately before the Diet was to vote on an arrest request from the Public Prosecutors Office.

Suzuki says recurring money scandals stem from a “money-guzzling political climate.” As a general rule, vote-getting machines for national legislators do not start running unless money is funneled to affiliated prefectural and municipal assembly members. As yet, there is little willingness by voters to nurture political parties of their choice through payment of membership dues. Suzuki says illegal campaign financing reflects “the immaturity of party politics.”

The debate on campaign finance reform turns on a number of proposals. One would restrict donations from public-works contractors. Opposition parties demand a total ban. A second proposal aims to prohibit donations from companies that don’t pay dividends to shareholders. A third plan would curb contributions to party chapters — a step designed to close the “loophole” in the ban against contributions to individual politicians. New Komeito has proposed that donations from the same company to a single chapter be limited to no more than 1.5 million yen.

In the Diet, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has expressed support for limiting donations, saying measures should be enacted during the current session. Although many LDP members are negative about such plans, Koizumi has ordered Secretary General Taku Yamasaki to conduct an internal feasibility study.

Sakai has made it clear he will not quit his legislative seat if the Diet passes a resolution against him. Suzuki says legislative action should be taken, if necessary, to prohibit the payment of allowances to any arrested Diet member.

When he came to office, Koizumi vowed to “smash the LDP” if it boycotted his reform plans. He must demonstrate strong leadership to push through his initiative. Otherwise the goal of establishing clean politics — reforming the “money-guzzling political climate” — will grow even more distant.

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