Japan may have avoided being locked down this winter, but is its longest serving PM Shinzo Abe about to be locked up? That is the alarming prospect that faces Abe as he struggles to explain his role, and that of his advisors, in a scandal that has beset him in and out of office for over two years.
The allegation is that events organised for Abe’s constituents and assorted followers, including cherry blossom viewing parties, held between 2016 and 2018, were subsidised by his support group to the tune of around of around 30 million yen (£210,000 pounds). The undeclared payments, it is claimed, were in contravention of election law.
Suspicions were aroused when it emerged that attendees had been charged just 5000 yen (£30) a head for the banquets in swanky hotels, when the usual fee is more than double that. This led to the accusation that the shortfall had been made up by Abe’s group and the discount rate offered as a sort of nod and a wink gift to the movers and shakers who landed an invite.
Abe was questioned by prosecutors on 21 December and claimed he didn’t personally know about the payments. A summary indictment has been issued to the leader of Abe’s political support group Hiroyuki Haikawa, who has been ordered to pay a 1 million yen (£7000) fine. Abe escaped indictment himself but was obliged to make a grovelling apology in the Diet where he accepted moral if not legal responsibility. But this is hardly the end of the affair.
The Lower House Research Bureau, which is investigating the scandal, is now likely to demand to see receipts and invoices, which Abe says he does not have, though he has agreed to discuss with his office whether such documents could be reissued by the hotel.
There is a danger here for Abe in that, depending on what they contain, such documents could mean he finds himself under formal investigation again. Whatever happens. once the regular Diet session is reconvened later this month Abe is likely to face further questions. And as a sworn witness, he will be at risk of a prosecution for perjury if he is found to have dissembled.
The problem for Abe is not so much that payments were made, which is naughty but probably not fatal, but that he repeatedly denied that payments were made. The bureau has claimed that Abe made 118 false statements in the Diet about the issue. Whatever Abe did, or didn't know, his evasive attitude has drained sympathy away and spurred on his opponents to get to the truth.
It is hard to believe how rapid and precipitously Abe has fallen. Not that long ago he appeared unassailable: he had few obvious rivals, and along with the long service record, he was looking forward to crowning his career by presiding over the 2020 Olympics, his own pet project. Then accumulating scandals, his personal health problems, and the coronavirus crisis put paid to his long cherished Olympic dream and cut short his second stint as prime minister.
However, some saw his resignation last September as merely a tactical withdrawal. His own protégé Yoshihide Suga was somewhat controversially ushered in as the new PM, and was rumoured to be merely a seat warmer for Abe. Some suggested that Abe had it in mind to return for a third time as PM once the scandals had died down and his health had improved. He fuelled those rumours himself by indicating he wished to head up the leading LDP faction, a stance he has since disavowed in the light of recent events. Now, there will be no more comebacks.
But if Abe is having a distinctly uncomfortable time, his successor Suga is scarcely more relaxed. As Abe’s right-hand man he has also been accused of giving false answers in the Diet over the funding scandal, specifically when he stated that the now established payments had not been made.
Suga has promised to give further clarification but has so far failed to do so. Significantly, he has also avoided questions about whether he would stand as LDP president in the autumn, which would be necessary for him to continue as prime minister.
There is little sympathy for Abe but some may feel a measure for Suga, who took on the top job at the worst possible time, receiving the ultimate hospital pass of the coronavirus, the unsettled Olympic question, and the lingering Cherry Blossom scandal. Abe’s loyal lieutenant is not a member of any faction himself and has no figure of stature around to protect him as he once protected Abe. Yet the trouble for Suga is that he’s still seen as Abe’s man, and may have told untruths for his old boss that are now unraveling. If Abe goes down, it’s hard to see how he can survive.
As Richard Nixon said: ‘It’s the lie that gets you’.