Few people, if any, could be convinced by economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi's explanations in the Diet on a scandal centering on his secretaries' gifts to voters in his home constituency.
During a Diet session, Motegi admitted that his secretaries had distributed incense sticks and notebook planners to constituents over the past several years, but categorically denied that he gave these aides any instructions regarding the gifts. Motegi said his name was not written on the gifts or their packaging and explained that the gift-giving was supposed to help boost public support for the local branch of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in his constituency.
The Public Offices Election Act prohibits candidates and related parties from donating cash or goods to voters. Political party branches are also banned by the law from distributing money or goods to constituents while clarifying candidates' names or otherwise allowing the candidates to be identified. This is to prevent such practices from developing into vote buying.
Motegi is apparently of the view that he and his aides broke no law because they distributed the gifts to constituents as part of the political party branch's activities without identifying his name.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, who is responsible for enforcing the Public Offices Election Act, has expressed her view that Motegi's secretaries did not distribute the items to local voters in a way that could allow the recipients to guess his name. However, one cannot help but wonder whether local voters who received incense sticks and notebooks could work out that the gifts were from Motegi.
When asked by an opposition party legislator whether the secretaries were carrying Motegi's business cards when they distributed the gifts, the state minister only said, "I don't know because I wasn't there." He does not appear at all enthusiastic about convincing the public.
Motegi and Noda were seen chatting with each other while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was responding to questions from a legislator during a House of Representatives Budget Committee session. Their chitchat could be viewed as an effort to coordinate their responses, and is imprudent. Criticism of their actions emerged even from within the ruling coalition.
In 1999, LDP lower house member Itsunori Onodera, who currently serves as defense minister, was reported to prosecutors on suspicion of violating the Public Offices Election Act for distributing incense sticks which carried his name to voters, and resigned as a legislator the following year. In a summary trial, he was suspended from running for public office or voting in elections for three years.
Motegi's aides did not directly identify the donor of the gifts, apparently because they were aware of the incident involving Onodera. But what does it mean to "allow the donor to be identified"? The phrase is ambiguous. In the eyes of voters, it is unreasonable for politicians to switch between their names and the names of their secretaries and political party branches at their own convenience.
It is surprising that such a practice, which could be described as a law-evading act, is still continuing in the political world. Relevant legislation should be amended to strictly prohibit politicians, secretaries and relevant organizations from giving gifts to constituents, without exception.