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Ruling parties decide to order Finance Ministry report; LDP upset with PM Abe

Finance Minister Taro Aso (left) exchanges words with Mitsuru Ota, director-general of the Finance Ministry's Financial Bureau, at a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on March 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

Objections not only from opposition parties, but from those within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have erupted in response to the Finance Ministry's claim that it cannot release allegedly altered documents regarding the heavily discounted sale of state land to school corporation Moritomo Gakuen.

A senior official from the prime minister's office countered the criticism, saying, "The ministry has released what it could," but there is rising pressure on the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from the LDP to swiftly bring the scandal to an end. The administration's strategy of evading difficult questions is quickly approaching its breaking point.

Asked at a March 6 press conference whether the Finance Ministry should make clear whether or not it had doctored its land-sale records, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, looked irritated as he said, "Unless we clear things up, Diet deliberations cannot move forward." The remark was a step up in tone from his comment the previous day, when he said that he would "lodge a serious protest against the government" if it did not release the documents. Public criticism of the administration by an LDP bigwig, who says he "cannot understand" why the government is withholding the documents in question, has been shocking.

At a meeting of the LDP's deputy secretary-generals shortly before the press conference, a slew of concerns were raised. Some said that it was only natural for the opposition to halt deliberations when the government hasn't given them any clarification, while others said that the party's capacity to flush out misdeeds was being tested. At a March 6 news conference, Wataru Takeshita, chairperson of the LDP's General Council, expressed his agreement with Nikai, saying, "We will continue urging the government to comply (with requests from lawmakers)."

These complaints from within the ruling party have emerged because of the bitter memory LDP lawmakers have from last year, when Prime Minister Abe made unfavorable matters worse by adopting the bull-headed approach of refusing to release internal government documents relating to the establishment of a veterinary school by Kake Educational Institution, not providing a reasonable explanation for the 800-million-yen discount on land sold to Moritomo Gakuen, and hiding the existence of logs created by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces during its peacekeeping operations in South Sudan.

The prime minister's credibility has already been brought into question in the current session of the Diet, as he tried to push through a proposal to expand the discretionary labor system, even after data he presented as support for his argument was found to be flawed. Nikai and other party members who determined that railroading such a proposal would derail Diet deliberations have recently convinced Abe to remove the stipulation from the work-style reform bill. There is growing resentment within the LDP toward the prime minister's office, which has a tendency to veer from a safe approach to administration to a more bullish one.

What also comes into play is the LDP leadership election set for September. Abe's strategy for winning his third LDP presidential election would be undermined if Nikai, who was the first to express support for Abe to continue as LDP president after his current term, were to retract his support. According to a senior LDP official, Abe does not stand up to Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who has long been a strong ally of his. Nikai is feeling out whether he can take advantage of this state of affairs to tip the balance of power between the administration and the LDP in favor of the latter, in order to bolster his own influence. A veteran LDP lawmaker who heard Nikai's remarks on March 6 told the Mainichi Shimbun with a wry smile, "That's Mr. Nikai's style."

And yet, the prime minister's office continues to assume a bold approach. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura visited the offices of Nikai and the LDP's senior Diet affairs officials on March 6, and gave them the same explanation that had been given to the opposition, which was that the records in question were unavailable because they had all been submitted to the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office. A senior official from the prime minister's office flatly stated, "The case is under investigation, so we can't release what we can't release. We've done absolutely nothing wrong."

This time, however, the issue is not whether the prime minister's aides and bureaucrats curried favor with politicians and acted on those speculations. The issue is one of fact: Are there or are there not original and adulterated versions of the land-sale records? Faced with a Finance Ministry that refuses to even answer this question has elicited strong objections from the opposition, with the Democratic Party's House of Councillors Diet affairs chief Masayoshi Nataniya saying, "I'm sorry if I offend any children, but the government's response is worse than something a child would offer." The ruling parties were put on the defensive.

If the Finance Ministry were to release the records in question in a timely fashion, and the allegations turn out to be true, not only would the resignation of Aso, who has supported Abe as finance minister and deputy prime minister for the past five years become a real possibility, but the foundations of the entire administration would be shaken to their core.

At a press conference March 6, Aso was asked what would happen if the document at the center of the scandal turns out to have been altered, to which he responded, "I will refrain from answering hypothetical questions." However, in the Diet, Aso has said, "If the suspicions are indeed correct, then the situation is extremely grave."

If the suspicions do indeed turn out to be correct, the focus will be on the question of who ordered that the records be manipulated. The prime minister's office is desperate to keep its distance from the scandal by framing it as a problem at the Finance Ministry, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying very little at a press conference, aside from, "It all comes down to testimony from Mr. Aso and the Finance Ministry." Some within the government have said that documents like the one in question have the potential to change throughout the process, as if to provide a pre-emptive excuse in case there turns out to be before-and-after versions. But opposition parties and the public are not likely to buy into such an excuse.

If the Abe administration's credibility continues to be called into question, and it traces the developments of last summer, when the Moritomo and Kake scandals caused Cabinet approval ratings to plummet, Prime Minister Abe's authority would plunge instantaneously. In that case, not only the passage of work-style reforms, but the chances of Abe's election to a third LDP presidential term would become uncertain.

If it is proven that the land-sale records had not been tampered with, the ongoing scandal will end, allowing the Abe administration to avoid the worst-case scenario. This year, however, the existence of numerous internal documents regarding the Moritomo scandal has come to light. The opposition is expected to continue its offensive to summon National Tax Agency chief Nobuhisa Sagawa to testify in the Diet, putting the administration in no position to be optimistic.

On the morning of March 7, the secretaries-general and Diet affairs chiefs of the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito met in Tokyo. Komeito Secretary-General Yoshihisa Inoue proposed that the Finance Ministry be ordered to release a report on the land-sale records and testimony from people who were involved with the records by the next day. LDP Secretary-General Nikai agreed.

Following the meeting, LDP Secretary-General Nikai met with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nishimura at LDP Headquarters and urged him to submit all related documents and testimony from those concerned to the Diet as soon as possible. Nishimura responded, "We will submit what we can."

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga, meanwhile, told a press conference, "We will make sure the Finance Ministry acts responsibly, giving consideration to the ruling parties' demands."

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