TOKYO – Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga apologized on Thursday for what he said were unintentionally false statements about a political spending scandal that affected the first months of his government.
The apology came hours after Japanese prosecutors said they would seek to fine an aide to Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, for alleged violations of political spending rules.
Prosecutors said Abe himself would not be charged in connection with the matter, an unusual statement that appeared to be aimed at suppressing media speculation about his fate.
Suga, who succeeded Abe as prime minister in September, was not charged with wrongdoing. Still, Suga spent Abe’s nearly eight years in office as its chief spokesman and political advocate, defending him in the press and in Japan’s parliament against accusations of wrongdoing.
The residue of the Abe scandal – involving several alleged violations of the country’s electoral and political funding laws – has tainted the Suga government, which is already recovering from public anger over the treatment of the coronavirus. The prime minister’s poll numbers plummeted from an increase of about 65 percent when he took office to 39 percent in a poll by Asahi Shimbun, a daily newspaper, conducted last weekend.
Prosecutors are asking Hiroyuki Haikawa, a 61-year-old former adviser to Abe, to be punished under an abbreviated legal process reserved for relatively minor infractions responsible for fines under $ 10,000. The announcement effectively guarantees that the charges will never be brought to a public hearing.
Haikawa is accused of underestimating the true amount paid with campaign funds for banquets for Abe’s supporters by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The dinners were held over a four-year period at a luxury hotel in Tokyo, before an annual cherry blossom viewing party organized by the prime minister.
Mr. Abe and Mr. Suga consistently denied any wrongdoing. But after the prosecutor’s announcement, the two men apologized for making false statements to Parliament, saying they had unintentionally misrepresented the facts surrounding the scandal.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday night, Suga, pale and trembling, said that, in Abe’s defense process, he answered Parliament’s questions with “answers that differed from the facts. In this regard, I express my deepest apologies to the nation. “
In comments echoing Suga’s, Abe apologized for previous statements about the scandal, which he said were “contrary to the truth”, but added that he had not been informed about the underreporting and that the inaccuracies were not intentional.
The amounts involved in the charges against Haikawa may seem small by the standards of political corruption in other countries, but they were big news in Japan, where politicians were thrown out of office for seemingly minor violations of campaign finance rules, such as giving potatoes.
The cherry blossom viewing party, which has been organized by Japan’s prime ministers since 1950 and is paid for with public funds, became the center of a major public scandal at the end of last year, when it was revealed that Abe and his allies they had invited thousands of political supporters to attend over the years. Mr. Suga helped to define the guest lists for the events.
The issue gained momentum after officials revealed they had destroyed this year’s proposed guest list, after opposition lawmakers asked to see it. Demands for an inquiry followed, and the case continued to haunt Abe until he resigned in September, citing health problems.
In a statement, prosecutors said they would not pursue charges against Abe over banquets or the cherry blossom display party for lack of evidence.
Local media reported widely that Abe had been subjected to voluntary inquiries by prosecutors on the matter on Monday.
On Twitter, users denounced the prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges against Abe. Tweets demanding that authorities file complaints were the trend on Thursday morning, accompanied by the hashtag “#abenomics”, a joke named after the former prime minister’s economic revitalization campaign. Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University and vocal critic of the former leader, said his Christmas wish was for Santa Claus to arrest Abe at the North Pole.
The outrage reflected widespread frustration with Abe, who withstood several influence-trafficking scandals during his time as the country’s oldest prime minister – a record he achieved with strong economic growth, partly through his efforts to reform and skilled handling of President Trump.
Most famously, he was accused of improperly selling public land at discounted prices to a political ally. A government official arrested in the scandal committed suicide.
The scandals were never conclusively linked to the former leader, who denied any wrongdoing, but fueled public anger that almost cost Abe his job.
His reputation was also tarnished by his allies’ disagreements with the law. Earlier this year, Anri Kawai, one of his political protégés and the wife of a former justice minister in his office, was accused of buying votes to win the election to the upper house of parliament. She is currently on trial in Tokyo, where she pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Makiko Inoue and Hikari Hida contributed reports.