The repeated problems involving money in politics don’t seem to be playing much of a role in the campaign for the upcoming Upper House election, including the scandal that led to the resignation earlier this year of economy minister Akira Amari over his office’s questionable receipt of money from a construction company seeking favors. The scandal that engulfed former Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, which made headlines for weeks until he quit just before the Upper House campaign began, now seems like a thing of the past as attention shifts to who will run in a special election next month to succeed him.
But the problems highlighted in Amari’s case and Masuzoe’s misappropriation of political funds remain unaddressed. The exit of politicians under fire does nothing to fill the loopholes in the system that is controlling political funds or fix the shortcomings of the anti-graft law. Their problems should not be cast aside as isolated incidents.
The campaign platform of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party does not mention any action related to the issue of money and politics, even though several members of Abe’s Cabinet have come under fire over the issue and some were forced to resign from their ministerial positions, including Amari in January.
Amari stepped down as economy minister following revelations that he and his secretaries had received millions of yen in cash and benefits from an employee of a construction firm in Chiba Prefecture who was seeking his office’s intervention in a dispute the company was having with a government-funded public housing corporation. The company employee later told the media that the money provided to the lawmaker and his aides — including ¥3 million that was “privately used” by one of the aides without being reported as a political donation — was meant as reward for successfully winning more than ¥200 million in compensation from the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) in 2013.
Amari, who denied any wrongdoing himself even as he quit, stayed out of the Diet and the public eye for months, citing ailments caused by what he called “a sleeping disorder,” until prosecutors decided in late May not to charge either him or his aides under the anti-graft law because there was insufficient evidence that Amari and his aides used the influence he gained as a Diet member to resolve the trouble between the construction firm and UR.
Appearing before reporters this month to say that he was resuming his political activities, Amari said his own probe into the case, which he promised when he quit in January, was still pending. Complaints have been filed with a Tokyo prosecution inquest panel to review the decision not to indict him and the case remains open. Critics say the anti-graft law is toothless because it sets too high a hurdle for action to be taken against dubious exchanges of money involving lawmakers.
Masuzoe, who was elected governor in 2014 after his predecessor, Naoki Inose, was forced out of office by his own money scandal, stepped down to avert a no-confidence vote by all parties in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, including the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito, which supported him in the race two years ago. He had been under fire from members of the assembly and the media over his lavish spending in official trips as governor, repeated use of his official car for weekend trips to his private second house, and millions of yen in political funds misappropriated for apparently private purposes. Lawyers commissioned by the governor said the misappropriation, worth at least ¥4 million, was “inappropriate” but “not illegal” because the Political Funds Control Law effectively sets no legal guideline on the scope of “political expenses” on which tax-free political funds can legitimately be used.
Transparency in political funds is often demanded and promised when politicians become embroiled in money scandals. But efforts to close the loopholes in the political funds law remain elusive as political and public attention shifts elsewhere once the politicians in question leave the stage. The law allows lawmakers to circumvent the ban on donations by businesses and other organizations to individual politicians by receiving the money through their political parties. A significant portion of the political funds used by lawmakers come from the roughly ¥30 billion in annual government subsidies to political parties, which was introduced in the 1990s so that political activities will be financed by “clean” taxpayer money that had no strings attached. The law does little to control how the funds are used by the lawmakers. Meanwhile, the LDP adamantly opposes calls by opposition parties for a total ban on political donations by businesses.
It’s time for lawmakers to finally get serious about overhauling the system controlling political funds. Voters should use their ballots to prod them to take action.