TOKYO - Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, revised internal rules on Sunday to toughen penalties for lawmakers involved in political funds scandals, as public trust in politics has been declining significantly.

The LDP has come under intense scrutiny amid allegations that some of its factions, including the largest one formerly led by the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, neglected to report portions of their income from fundraising parties and created slush funds for years.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida delivers a speech at a party congress of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on March 17, 2024. (Kyodo)

In amending its regulations, the LDP also pledged to move away from factions as vehicles for securing funds and allocating major government and party posts to lawmakers, while allowing such intraparty entities to continue as "policy groups."

In his speech at the LDP's annual convention in Tokyo, Kishida apologized for "inviting suspicion and mistrust" among the public following the funds scandal, adding he will "take the lead" in restoring confidence in politics.

Kishida said his government and the ruling camp will aim to revise the political funds control law, which is often criticized for loopholes enabling politicians to maintain slush funds, during the ongoing parliamentary session through June.

Earlier this year, the LDP said more than 80 of its around 370 lawmakers had underreported income in political funds documents, but the party has not investigated and provided details regarding how the money was used.

Prosecutors have indicted or issued summary indictments to 10 individuals belonging to three LDP factions, but executives of the groups have not faced criminal charges due to a lack of evidence implicating them.

The three groups -- two previously headed by Abe and Kishida as well as one led by former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai -- have decided to disband following the slush funds scandal. Abe was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in western Japan in July 2022.

The revised internal rules stipulate that the LDP can urge a lawmaker to leave the party if an accountant of their political group is arrested or if the lawmaker is prosecuted for violating the political funds control law.

But the new regulations will not be enforced retroactively on those involved in the latest slush funds scandal.

The focus is on whether Kishida will punish LDP heavyweights linked to the funds scandal, according to political experts, as he said he "will respond strictly" to those who fail to sufficiently explain how they used the unreported money.

The annual convention took place before three by-elections to fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives are held on April 28, with approval ratings for Kishida's Cabinet having plunged to their lowest levels since it was launched in October 2021.

Kishida said, "While acknowledging the strong criticism of our party, we should make every effort" to win the by-elections.

Recently, Kishida's government and ruling party have also been lambasted by the opposition bloc after it emerged a prefectural chapter of the LDP hosted an event for its junior members attended by female dancers in revealing dresses.

Depending on the results of the by-elections, LDP lawmakers could seek to oust Kishida as leader before the next general election, amid speculation he will dissolve the lower house ahead of the party's presidential race around September, some pundits said.

Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi gives remarks at a party congress of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on March 17, 2024. (Kyodo)

In a speech at the convention on Sunday, Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of the LDP's junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, said the ruling camp has "been facing the biggest challenge since we regained power in 2012."

The LDP, which has been in power for most of the period since 1955, said its membership stood at about 1.09 million as of the end of 2023, down more than 30,000 from a year earlier, negatively affected by the slush funds scandal.

Earlier this month, a Kyodo News survey showed that the LDP's support rate has fallen to its lowest level since December 2012, when the party scored a landslide victory in the general election and returned to power.



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LDP agrees to amend rules to strengthen governance amid funds scandal