The unusual resignation of two ministers in one day — less than two months after both were appointed to their posts in September’s Cabinet reshuffle — reflects the effort by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration to contain the political damage caused by the separate spending scandals involving the women.
But the exit of Yuko Obuchi as trade and industry minister and Midori Matsushima as justice minister does not relieve them of their duty as lawmakers to account for their questionable actions, which could violate the Public Offices Election Law. Both Obuchi and Matsushima still need to give convincing explanations about the alleged irregularities.
Obuchi, a popular lawmaker often touted as a future prime minister hopeful, and Matsushima were among the five female lawmakers given Cabinet posts by Abe, who has set an agenda of promoting women to key positions in government and businesses. Their exit marked a setback for the Abe administration, which saw its popular approval ratings plummet in media polls over the weekend as the scandals involving the two ministers unfolded.
Obuchi came under fire for the gap between revenue and expenses at her two political organizations when they organized theater events for supporters in her Gunma Prefecture constituency in 2010 and 2011. The two bodies’ funds reports show that they collected a total of ¥7.42 million in participation fees from the supporters, who were bused from Gunma to the Meijiza theater in Tokyo, but paid ¥33.84 million to the theater for the events. If the ¥26.42 million gap means that Obuchi’s organizations shouldered part of the events’ expenses, the act would constitute a provision of benefits to voters, which is banned under the election law. A 2012 funds report, meanwhile, lacked any mention of the event held for that year.
After tendering her resignation on Monday, Obuchi said she would have the funds report reviewed by lawyers and accountants to investigate what happened. Earlier she said she acknowledged that her organizations broke the law if they had compensated for shortfalls in event expenses.
Matsushima, meanwhile, reiterated that she did not think her act of distributing paper fans — with her name, caricature and message printed — among voters in her constituency in Tokyo infringed on any law. Her office has produced 22,000 fans since 2012 and distributed them to residents during at events such as local festivals. An opposition Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker last week filed a criminal accusation with prosecutors against the justice minister, alleging that her act violated the election law, which bans candidates from donating goods of a certain value to voters. Matsushima has argued that the fans shouldn’t be construed as “goods with value.”
Obuchi, who took over the support base of her late father, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, after he died of a stroke in 2000, has come to be viewed as one of the next-generation leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party with her clean and fresh image, and was serving the second Cabinet post of her career. The questions over the theater events raises doubts about her control of her own political funds. During Abe’s first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007, three members of his Cabinet resigned and one killed himself over money problems — mostly irregularities in their political funds report.
People are fed up with the money scandals that continue to haunt Diet members, heads of local governments and local assembly members. The Abe administration needs to take the scandals that led to the resignations of the two ministers seriously — not just because of their political impact but because of how they reflect upon lawmakers in general.
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