A Lower House lawmaker with a Cabinet portfolio on his resume and his wife, a rookie member of the Upper House, are facing criminal charges over a massive vote-buying scandal in connection with her successful election campaign last year.
In addition, her campaign received unusually robust support from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration.
Regaining public trust in politics requires Abe and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to offer convincing explanations about what happened, in addition to the disclosure of the truth through their trials.
The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office on July 8 indicted Katsuyuki Kawai, a former justice minister, and his wife, Anri, a first-term Upper House member, on charges of violating the Public Offices Election Law.
The two legislators, once seen as an up-and-coming political couple, are accused of illegally handing out about 29 million yen ($270,200) to 100 voters, including local assembly members, in Hiroshima Prefecture to garner votes for Anri in the 2019 Upper House election.
The couple reportedly denies trying to buy votes, claiming the money was spent on legitimate political activities. Since allegations of a separate election law violation related to Anri Kawai’s campaign emerged last autumn, the two lawmakers have made no serious attempt to fulfill their responsibility to explain the scandal.
Nor have they been able to properly perform their duties as Diet members. If they are aware of their political responsibility for their questionable behavior and dismal performances, the two politicians should resign their Diet seats.
But prosecutors have decided against pursing criminal charges against local voters who received cash. The decision was apparently based on a comprehensive evaluation of the circumstances, including the fact that in many cases Katsuyuki handed unsolicited money to recipients.
But there are some local assembly members who received the cash despite being fully aware of its illegal nature and local government chiefs who denied receiving such money until they were reported to have done so.
The prosecutors’ blanket decision to forgo the prosecution of all the recipients of cash is not totally sensible.
In the background of the scandal is the Abe administration’s forceful move to field Anri Kawai as an official LDP candidate for the election in the district, despite strong opposition from the party’s local branch.
The LDP headquarters provided 150 million yen to her campaign, 10 times more than the amount given to the party incumbent in the two-seat district, who failed to be re-elected.
The LDP has yet to offer any convincing response to whether part of the money was used to buy votes.
Of the 150 million yen donated by the LDP to the Anri campaign, 120 million yen came from tax-financed state subsidies to the party, according to party officials.
The program to provide official subsidies to political parties that meet certain criteria was established as part of the political reform in the 1990s in response to public criticism of money politics as symbolized by corruption scandals including the so-called Recruit shares-for-favors scandal.
The centerpiece of the reform was the introduction of single-seat constituencies to the Lower House. Allegations against the Kawais have made many Japanese leery of the subsidies program.
But the LDP has done nothing but try to avoid the responsibility to uncover the facts.
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiko Nikai initially denied the suspicion that the money provided by the party to the Anri campaign was used for bribery, pointing out that certified public accountants working at the party headquarters rigorously examine expenditures by local chapters.
After the couple was arrested, however, Nikai started equivocating, admitting that the party does not follow how its money is spent after it was transferred to local branches.
The LDP’s answers to questions in an opposition open letter were brusque and insincere. The party only said it “handles political funds properly in accordance with the law,” adding “please read our (political funding) reports that are published.”
On the indictment of the Kawais, Abe said on July 8 that he feels “acutely his responsibility” and offered “apologies to the public.” But Abe keeps leaving it up to the party to handle the matter.
Abe appointed Katsuyuki to important positions, including as a special adviser, and provided full support to his wife’s election campaign, sending his secretaries to help it.
Abe has a clear duty to lead the efforts to clarify all the related allegations.