Tokyo – Four Japanese ministers tendered their resignations on Thursday as unpopular Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reels from a major corruption scandal in the ruling party.
The cabinet crisis comes after allegations of kickbacks of 500 million yen ($3.4 million) in the faction-riven Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed the world’s third-largest economy almost uninterrupted for decades.
Media reports suggested that prosecutors were about to begin raiding offices and interviewing dozens of lawmakers later this week.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno confirmed that he was stepping down and that Economy and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, Internal Affairs Minister Junji Suzuki and Agriculture Minister Ichiro Miyashita had also tendered their resignations.
Michiko Ueno, a special advisor to the prime minister, is also leaving office as well as five deputy ministers, Matsuno, who is also chief government spokesman, told reporters.
“The public’s doubts are around me over political funds, which is leading to distrust in the government. As an investigation is going on, I thought I wanted to set things right,” Nishimura told reporters.
Kishida said a day before that he would deal with the allegations “head-on”.
“I will make efforts like a ball of fire and lead the LDP to restore the public’s trust,” he told reporters.
The prime minister’s poll ratings are the worst for any premier since the LDP returned to power in 2012 because of voter anger about inflation as well as his handling of a string of earlier scandals.
The kickbacks allegedly went to party members who exceeded their ticket sales quotas for party fundraising events.
“If you are confident of selling (tickets), if you sell more than you are obliged to sell, that will all become your income, so that’s easy and great,” a senior official who used to work in the office of an LDP lawmaker told broadcaster ANN, with his face concealed and voice disguised.
The latest scandal implicates the largest faction within the LDP, which was headed by ex-premier Shinzo Abe before his assassination last year.
The grouping headed until recently by Kishida himself was also suspected of failing to declare more than 20 million yen in the three years to 2020, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported.
Kishida’s poll ratings have tumbled since being chosen as a safe pair of hands by the squabbling LDP in October 2021.
He already carried out a reshuffle in September and last month announced a stimulus package worth 17 trillion yen ($117 billion) to boost the flagging economy and ease the pain from rising prices.
The 66-year-old can govern until 2025 but there has been speculation that he might call a snap election ahead of a likely tough internal leadership vote in the LDP next year.
Analysts said that jettisoning members of the LDP’s biggest faction with around 100 members could make his job even harder.
“This may not necessarily give Kishida more freedom in governing, as the break with the Abe faction could complicate the administration’s management,” Naofumi Fujimura, professor of political science at Kobe University, told AFP.
“The scandal has significantly undermined public support for the LDP and the Kishida government. However, it remains uncertain whether it will result in a change of government, especially given the currently low public support for opposition parties,” he said.
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