March 22, 2018, 11:49 am IST
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Cronyism charge against Shinzo Abe

Cronyism charge against Shinzo Abe

 Mar 13, 2018

The Japanese Prime Minister,  Shinzo Abe, and his close ally, the Finance Minister,   Taro Aso, face growing pressure over a suspected cover-up of a cronyism scandal that has dogged the premier for more than a year.

Copies of documents showed that references to  Abe, his wife and Aso, Deputy Prime Minister, were removed from finance ministry records of the discounted sale of state-owned land to a school operator with ties to  Abe’s wife. Abe, now in his sixth year in office, has denied that he or his wife did favours for the school operator, Moritomo Gakuen, and has said he would resign if evidence was found that they had.

Excised references did not appear to show that  Abe or his wife intervened directly in the deal. Suspicion of a cover-up could slash his ratings and dash his hopes for a third term as leader of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Victory in the LDP September leadership vote would put him on track to become Japan’s longest-serving premier.

The doubts are also putting pressure on  Aso to resign. 'It could shake confidence in the administration as a whole. I strongly feel responsibility as the head of administration,'  Abe told reporters after the finance ministry reported on the altered documents.

'I apologise to all of the people.'  Abe said he wanted Aso to make every effort to clarify all the facts and ensure such things do not happen again.  Aso told a separate news conference that several officials at his ministry’s division in charge of the sale were involved in altering the documents to make them conform with testimony in Parliament by the then-head of the division.

'It has become clear that there was a cover-up and falsification,' opposition Democratic Party leader,   Yuichiro Tamaki, told reporters. He said Aso should resign and Parliament hold hearings on the matter. The 77-year-old  Aso, who is also deputy premier and whose backing is vital for  Abe, apologised for his ministry’s actions, but said that he had no intention of stepping down.

The risk for both, experts said, is that the suspected cover-up does more damage than the land sale itself. 'The cover-up is now a bigger issue than the original incident,' said  Koichi Nakano, a professor at Sophia University.

A finance ministry official said that 14 items had been altered in the documents after February last year, when the scandal broke, at the instruction of the ministry’s financial division to match testimony in Parliament.

One such reference was to  Akie’s visit to the school at the heart of the suspected scandal. Also removed was a reference to ties by  Abe and Aso to a conservative lobby group, Nippon Kaigi. The records include a comment from Yasunori Kagoike, the former head of Moritomo Gakuen, citing Akie Abe as telling him: 'This is good land so please proceed.' 

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