|June 20, 2002||atimes.com|
Suzuki arrest offers welcome sideshow
By Richard Hanson
TOKYO - Muneo Suzuki is a rough-edged, once-powerful former bigwig of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and a member of the Lower House of the Diet (parliament), elected from the wilder environs of Hokkaido. On Wednesday, he showed in a backhanded way that some of Japan's constitutional government checks and balances work just fine in the hallowed corridors of power.
He did so by joining a small group of national lawmakers to have been scooped out of the protected walls of the national legislature and arrested on criminal charges - in this case receiving a bribe - brought by the public prosecutor's office. Suzuki was arrested on Wednesday afternoon.
His fellow lawmakers - representing the full spectrum of opposition and ruling-coalition political parties - unanimously supported an infringement on the well-guarded right of a sitting member of the Diet to avoid arrest (Article 50 of the constitution) while the legislature is in session. After a perfunctory hearing, the Lower House's steering committee (which ironically Muneo Suzuki chaired until other scandals toppled him earlier this year) declared him open game. They agreed that the prosecutors' case against Suzuki merited waiving the privilege.
This cleared the way for charges to be brought before the court and an arrest warrant to be issued. Suzuki will now aid the authorities in their inquiries from inside a detention center. Suzuki, 54, quit the LDP in March after the corruption allegations surfaced.
Fourteen other Diet members have been so arrested since World War II. The most recent was an Upper House member, Tatsuo Tomobe, who was arrested on suspicion of fraud in 1997. Tomobe lost his seat in an election while his case was still in the courts and his conviction was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court.
Suzuki is determined to fight the charges, declaring his complete innocence of any wrongdoing. The charges themselves do at first glance seem rather minor. Tokyo prosecutors allege that Suzuki accepted 5 million yen (US$40,000) from lumber company Yamarin in 1998 in exchange for lobbying for leniency in an illegal-logging case on the northern island. The company had been barred from bidding for logging contracts for seven months. It sought Suzuki's help, and allegedly handed over the money. What raised eyebrows was that the original meeting was held just after Suzuki was named deputy chief cabinet secretary, an influential post. Suzuki at the time was a member of the LDP's largest faction, headed by former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto.
The amount of money in question is small change for a politician who clawed his way up the Byzantine money-sucking power structure of the LDP. Suzuki claims that he did not take a bribe, but did receive a congratulatory political contribution of 4 million yen from Yamarin, and another 1 million yen from the company's president. The money was later returned.
Suzuki became a pivotal part of the LDP money-raising machine because of his skill at loosening the purse strings of constituents and other contributors He raised billions of yen in political contributions in this way, rising to near the pinnacle of the party. He was known to have ambitions to become prime minister. Just before Suzuki fell from grace earlier this year, he was ranked as the country's second-largest political fundraiser. (Japan's No 1 fundraiser was Koichi Kato, an ex-LDP prime-ministerial hopeful whose career fell apart in March in scandalous disgrace involving the activities of his former chief fundraiser. Kato had the humility to resign his seat in Lower House. Suzuki was forced out of the LDP, but denies wrongdoing and is determined to hold on to his elected seat despite being abandoned by the party.)
What brought about Suzuki's downfall within the LDP were revelations of his machinations involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in relations with Russia and the long-standing problem of four disputed islands off the shores of Hokkaido that were seized by Russia at the close of World War II. His activities undermined in some ways the government's efforts to negotiate with Russia over the return of the islands.
Suzuki is notorious for his violent temper and bullying ways. These tactics were said to have been used in brow-beating the Forestry Ministry into doing his bidding in helping Yamarin. He denies any such activity. Suzuki's close aides have been arrested and questioned by police involving a broad range of activities, some involving the northern islands. Suzuki also gained notoriety early this year for campaigning for and helping orchestrate the ouster of popular former foreign minister Makiko Tanaka.
For Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the Suzuki scandal is just one more impediment to pushing forward his master plan for passing major reform legislature that is now being considered by the Diet. These include such hot items as reform of the health-insurance system and the privatization of the postal services, which include the huge nationwide postal savings and insurance operations. Both are a prime source of political support for the LDP. Also up for debate are changes to the national emergency laws.
There is strong opposition to Koizumi's reforms from within the party. The opposition is especially fierce from the Hashimoto faction, the largest personal faction in the party. The speculation is that Suzuki is in some ways being used as a diversion from the main business at hand in the Diet. Suzuki is already considered to be dead meat.
What is clear is that these developments are not taking place randomly. Wednesday, June 19, was the official end of the current Diet. The Lower House agreed to extend the session by 42 days until July 31. During this period there is likely to be a great deal of compromise and bargaining between Koizumi and his opponents within his own party and the conservative coalition that supports his government.
So Suzuki's arrest and whatever comes of it will quickly become a sideshow. The opposition parties will use his case to batter away at the corrupt money politics that are endemic in all parties (perhaps with the exception of the Japan Communist Party, which gladly threw the capitalist par non Suzuki to the prosecution wolves). The prosecutors themselves are most likely trawling for much larger fish in restoring their own reputation, which has been sullied by revelations of at least one bad apple in their midst who has been arrested for wrongdoing in Osaka.
So all in all, the public will have to be satisfied that at least some parts of Japan's constitutional regime shine brightly when it serves at least some of the people some of the time.
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