Kishida Disciplines Japan Lawmakers Caught in Fund Scandal

(Bloomberg) -- Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling party dealt out punishments for lawmakers caught concealing political funds, as the troubled premier seeks to move on from a scandal that sent his voter support to record lows.

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Two senior politicians were ordered to resign from the Liberal Democratic Party, while dozens of others, some of them former cabinet ministers, received lesser penalties including temporary suspension of their membership, the party’s second-in-command Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters.

“We must reflect deeply on the fact we caused distrust of politics,” Motegi told reporters. “We want to start building trust.”

A total of 39 lawmakers received penalties after an extended meeting of the disciplinary committee. One of those ordered to leave the party — former Education Minister Ryu Shionoya — submitted a letter protesting the punishment as too harsh, and told reporters he would seek an explanation.

It’s unclear how far the steps will assuage public anger over the slush fund scandal, which has wracked the LDP for months. While undermining rivals, the penalties may also provoke more infighting, complicating Kishida’s path to re-election as party president in September.

Read: Japan PM Says Won’t Call Election Before Slush Fund Penalties

“I don’t think this will immediately sweep away distrust of politics, nor do I think it will help his support rate,” said Masaki Taniguchi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who served as an adviser on an LDP panel on political reform.

Support for Kishida’s cabinet slipped slightly to 22.8% in a survey by broadcaster JNN carried out March 30-31, touching a fresh low since he took office for the sixth consecutive month. A poll by the Yomiuri newspaper a week earlier found more than 80% of respondents were dissatisfied with the explanations lawmakers gave over their failure to declare some of their income.

Despite the scandal and public discontent over real incomes failing to keep pace with inflation, opposition parties have failed to take advantage of Kishida’s woes, and their support lags mostly in single figures. No general election need be held for more than a year.

Former Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko was among those instructed to resign, and did so immediately, he told reporters. Yasutoshi Nishimura, who also previously served as METI minister, had his membership suspended for a year.

The lawmakers concerned were last year found to have been concealing income generated at parties organized by the LDP’s once-powerful internal factions. Most of the major factions disbanded over the scandal, a move that failed to mollify voters.

Many of those set to be subjected to the harshest penalties held senior positions in a faction previously led by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was the party’s largest.

Undermining their power could allow Kishida to move away from Abe’s free-spending fiscal policies and unprecedented monetary easing, Taniguchi said, while adding he didn’t expect big changes immediately.

“The problem is how to prevent this from happening again,” Yosuke Takagi, policy chief of junior coalition party Komeito, said in an interview with Bloomberg Wednesday. “If we don’t decide policies on this in the current session of parliament, we won’t be able to win back trust.”

--With assistance from Takashi Hirokawa.

(Updates throughout with announcement of penalties)

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