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Some ruling bloc legislators join calls for Aso to quit over document doctoring scandal

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Some legislators within the ruling bloc have expressed their displeasure at Finance Minister Taro Aso's decision to stay on despite a scandal in which Finance Ministry officials doctored documents on the heavily discounted sale of state land to school operator Moritomo Gakuen.

They are particularly worried about the impact of the scandal on the governing coalition's chances of winning the next House of Councillors election as well as nationwide local elections in 2019.

Following the ministry's announcement of the outcome of its in-house probe into the scandal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that Aso, who doubles as deputy prime minister, will remain in his posts.

The government aims to tide over the current Diet session by trying to convince the public that the government will step up efforts to prevent a recurrence, such as by implementing the thorough management of official documents.

However, the in-house probe failed to clarify whether the ministry surmised the prime minister's intentions when it approved the heavily discounted sale of the land lot to Moritomo Gakuen. The school operator was linked to the prime minister's wife Akie Abe in the past because she was at one point named honorary principal of an elementary school the school corporation had intended to open on the property in question in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

Moreover, the Finance Ministry denied in its report on the investigation results that the ministry was systematically involved in the doctoring of the documents and failed to clarify the motives behind the falsification.

Opposition parties are poised to increase their demands that Aso step down amid efforts to hold the prime minister responsible for the scandal.

The Diet affairs chiefs of opposition parties, including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), the Democratic Party for the People and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), agreed at a meeting on June 4 to demand that Aso resign from the Abe Cabinet.

"It's wrong to settle the matter with money. The only way to fulfill political responsibility is for Mr. Aso to resign," Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the CDP's Diet affairs chief, told reporters. She was referring to Aso's announcement that he would give up his salary as a Cabinet minister for a year.

"Nobody (in the ruling coalition) can say Mr. Aso should quit. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s responsibility will also be called into question," she added.

Yuichiro Tamaki, co-leader of the Democratic Party for the People, even urged the prime minister to step down. "The prime minister's responsibility is grave. He should resign with his entire Cabinet."

Opposition parties are poised to demand that former Finance Ministry Financial Bureau chief Nobuhisa Sagawa be summoned again to testify before the Diet under oath over the scandal, saying that the ministry "obviously surmised the prime minister's intentions."

Kenji Eda, a member of the parliamentary bloc Mushozoku-no-kai (a group of independents), pointed out that the ministry was deeply involved in the falsification of the documents as an entity.

"The then director general of the Financial Bureau showed the basic direction (of doctoring the documents) and the director of the bureau's Planning and Administration Division played a leading role in the case and got the Kinki Local Finance Bureau involved in it. The ministry was certainly involved systematically," Eda told reporters.

Akira Koike, director of the JCP's secretariat, said the outcome of the in-house investigation "shows it's highly likely that the entire ministry was involved in the case."

Amid mounting criticism of the Abe administration over the scandal, the LDP has been caught in a dilemma between retaining Aso and having him resign from the Abe Cabinet.

Aso is a key member of the Abe Cabinet. If he is to step down over the scandal, the prime minister would come under fire from opposition parties over the matter. Moreover, his resignation would adversely affect Abe's management of his government and the prospect of his winning a third term as leader of the LDP in the September 2018 party presidential race.

Therefore, observations had been prevalent within the governing party that Aso would not quit his job as a Cabinet member.

On the other hand, if Aso were to stay in the Cabinet, it would mean that he has failed to assume political responsibility over the matter. In that case, the Abe administration's negative image would persist.

Considering that nationwide local elections and a House of Councillors election are scheduled for spring and summer next year, respectively, the governing bloc wants to avoid a situation in which opposition parties will keep grilling the government over the Moritomo case and another favoritism scandal involving Kake Educational Institution.

Some senior LDP legislators said they want Aso to step down.

"Mr. Aso should quit. Otherwise, the scandal would have an impact on the upper house election," said a former Cabinet minister, who says they have heard opinions critical of the government in their home constituency. Another former Cabinet member also expressed displeasure at Aso's failure to resign.

Still, few legislators within the LDP openly criticize Abe and Aso because many of them believe that Abe will be re-elected to a third term as LDP president.

The LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, which had adopted a stern attitude toward Aso, had no choice but to accept his decision to stay in power.

"We'd lose support if we were to show leniency" toward Aso, a senior Komeito member said before the report on the in-house investigation results was released. In late May, Komeito deputy leader Kazuo Kitagawa even mentioned Aso's political responsibility.

Still, Komeito has no choice but to tone down its tough stance since it has no intention of toppling the Abe Cabinet. Aso gave up his salary as a Cabinet minister for a year in apparent response to Komeito's demand.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi accepted Aso's decision to stay on after the ministry's announcement of the outcome of the in-house probe, telling reporters on June 4, "Aso is probably the only one who can fulfill the responsibility of rehabilitating the ministry," he said.

(Japanese original by Akira Murao, Masahiro Tateno, Noriaki Kinoshita and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department)

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