12/13/2023, 18.59
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LDP kickback scandal threatens the Kishida government

by Angeline Tan

All eyes are on members of the PM’s faction over US$ 3.5 million in allegedly unreported income garnered at party fundraisers. This comes on top of another scandal, namely the party’s ties to the controversial Unification Church. However, a weak opposition is not likely to remove the LDP from power even if elections are held.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The political fundraising scandal plaguing the largest faction of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) might indicate a quick demise of the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is already facing mounting pressure due to its ties with a contentious religious group. Till now, such allegations have been limited to the largest of at least five factions within the LDP that was once led by assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

All the members of its steering committee have been unable to give an explanation pertaining to claims that they received money from unreported income garnered through fundraising parties. Prosecutors are already probing claims that allegedly around ¥500 million (.4 million) in kickbacks went to LDP officials over the past five years.

The money reportedly was paid to party members who surpassed their ticket sales quotas for party fundraising events and was not properly declared to the tax authorities.

Nonetheless, there is also a possibility that the total amount of both unreported income and expenses could be double this sum, reaching a significant ¥1 billion, as per reports by the left-wing Asahi Shimbun.

While the amount received differed among lawmakers, over 10 members reportedly pocketed funds amounting to over ¥10 million. Among them, the most outstanding name remained Seiko Hashimoto, an upper house lawmaker and former Olympics minister, who has been lambasted for appropriating ¥20 million over five years, including the period she served in the Cabinet. Moreover, Yasutada Ohno, an upper house lawmaker from Gifu Prefecture, is reported to have pocketed ¥50 million, the highest sum so far.

On December 12, a faction within the LDP headed until recently by Kishida reportedly is now also implicated in the intensifying graft scandal. Fresh media reports posit that the faction headed by Kishida, until he resigned from it last week, may have also underreported its income, although the amount remains unclear.

Hours after Kishida’s faction released a statement saying it was taking “appropriate measures to verify the facts,” Kishida admitted that he had instructed the group to take action and make necessary changes. Still, the road ahead for Kishida and the LDP appears bleak, to say the least.

According to an NHK poll conducted over the weekend, 66 per cent of respondents said that Kishida’s responses to the scandal, including his resignation from his faction and demanding his party temporarily halt fundraising eventswere too slow. Support for the LDP fell below 30 per cent for the first time since the party assumed power in December 2012.

Kishida has depended on the Abe faction within the LDP ever since he took office over two years ago, raising eyebrows about his capabilities to run the government and retain support within the party without any of its members present in the Cabinet.

Notably, Kishida’s poll ratings have been plummeting even after reshuffling his cabinet in September and announcing a stimulus package worth ¥17 trillion (7 billion) in November, for the world's third-largest economy. The Japanese leader was already reported to be preparing to dismiss four ministers over the aforementioned allegations.

These ministers include the prime minister’s right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who reportedly accepted more than ¥10 million (,000) in bribes and who declined to comment when interviewed.

The opposition bloc was scheduled to file a no-confidence motion against the Kishida cabinet, although the motion was unlikely to pass owing to lack of support. Moreover, Matsuno faced a no-confidence motion but the Lower House did not adopt the motion.

With other members of the faction facing similar accusations as the scandal widens, Kishida has decided to sack Matsuno and replace all the other ministers in his cabinet who belong to the same faction, sources report.

A special squad of the Tokyo Public Prosecutor's Office will continue to investigate the faction’s flow of funds and balance sheets, Japanese news broadcaster NHK said.

In addition, during his time in power, Kishida has been embroiled in his party’s contentious links to the Unification Church, with reports that senior figures of the Unification Church, often deemed as a cult, attended a meeting with Kishida in 2019, when he was the party's policy chief.

The public outcry that ensued following revelations has left many LDP members worried that they will not be able to win national elections with Kishida as their leader, some pundits contended. Also, some LDP members are concerned that Kishida will be unable to lessen public scepticism about his connections to the Unification Church.

Although Kishida has been keen to seek re-election as president of the ruling party in an election expected next September, he could find himself pressured not to run, said Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at Nomura Research Institute.

Kishida does not have to face a House of Representatives (lower house) election until MPs' term in office expires in the fall of 2025. A House of Councillors (upper house) election is also poised for the summer the same year.

Nevertheless, some opposition lawmakers fear that if a no-confidence motion is submitted to the Diet, Kishida might take a risk by dissolving the lower house for a general election. Such a scenario, which Kishida has previously considered, could catch the opposition parties off guard, giving them little time to gear up for elections.

Despite plummeting public approval rates for Kishida’s government, support rates for major opposition parties have not increased dramatically, hinting that the opposition may not be able to oust the LDP from power even under its faltering leader.

Japan’s largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, has failed to significantly leverage Kishida’s weak support ratings. Besides, although the Japan Innovation Party has significantly increased its support base, it has not established a strong national profile.

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See also
Kishida, his son and Japan’s political dynasties
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Tokyo: Kishida reshuffles cabinet because of declining support
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