Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida replaced four ministers Thursday as the unpopular leader reels from a major corruption scandal in the ruling party.
The furore centres on alleged kickbacks of 500 million yen ($3.4 million) in the faction-riven Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed the world’s third-largest economy almost uninterrupted for decades.
Media reports suggested that prosecutors would begin raiding offices and interviewing dozens of lawmakers later this week.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno was replaced by former foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, a high-ranking member of Kishida’s LDP faction.
Ken Saito replaced Yasutoshi Nishimura as Economy and Industry Minister while Takeaki Matsumoto returned to his old post as internal affairs minister, replacing Junji Suzuki.
New Agriculture Minister Tetsushi Sakamoto took over after Ichiro Miyashita also tendered his resignation.
Michiko Ueno, a special adviser to the prime minister, also left office along with five deputy ministers.
“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 on Wednesday 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.
Kishida’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.
A new poll published by Jiji Press on Thursday showed public support for Kishida’s cabinet at just 17.1 percent, down 4.2 percentage points.
The kickbacks at the centre of the latest scandal 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 worked in the office of an LDP lawmaker told broadcaster ANN, his face concealed and voice disguised.
The kickbacks 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. – AFP