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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007
Farm chief for week, Endo exits in scandal
Abe's new Cabinet has first casualty
By MASAMI ITO
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's week-old Cabinet suffered a major blow Monday as farm minister Takehiko Endo stepped down over a money scandal just eight days after he was appointed.
Endo is the first Cabinet minister to go down after the Aug. 27 reshuffle and the fifth since Abe took office last September.
He quit in connection with an agricultural mutual aid association that he headed which had improperly received government subsidies.
Abe appointed Masatoshi Wakabayashi, the environment minister in his previous Cabinet, as Endo's successor.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a huge defeat in the July 29 Upper House election, prompting Abe to shuffle his Cabinet lineup in a bid to clean up its scandal-tainted image. He had to replace four ministers in his previous Cabinet, including two farm ministers.
Not only did the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc lose its majority in the Upper House, but the LDP for the first time lost its No. 1 status in the chamber.
"The new Cabinet was just inaugurated, and the damage (of Endo's resignation) will be severe," said Hideo Otake, a political science professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts in Kyoto.
"Just when Abe promised the public that it would be a new beginning for the Cabinet without any scandals this time, another arose," he said.
It was believed that Abe carried out a thorough background check on the members of the new Cabinet as well as his new lineup for the LDP leadership positions in an effort to present a cleaner image to the public.
Although by term limit, a Lower House election does not have to be held until 2009, Otake said "there is a possibility that (Abe) will be forced to dissolve the chamber sooner than that" and call a general election because of Endo's resignation.
"But at the same time, Abe might desperately try to avoid dissolving (the Lower House) because (the LDP) would be sure to lose if an election were to take place now," Otake added.
It was revealed Saturday that the farm cooperative Endo headed had illegally received ¥1.15 million in government subsidies when it applied for compensation by lying about grape crop damage in 1999.
Although Endo owned up to the falsehood, he refused to resign at first. Showered with severe criticism from opposition parties and from within the LDP, however, he submitted his resignation to Abe on Monday morning.
When Endo's predecessor, Norihiko Akagi, was under fire over a money scandal that helped drag the LDP down during the July election campaign, Abe stood behind him. This time around, Abe was quick to accept Endo's resignation to prevent further damage to his new Cabinet.
Abe's slowness in dismissing Akagi amplified the public distrust in the LDP during the July Upper House campaign.
"The minister responsible for (distributing) government subsidies must keep strict neutrality," Endo told a news conference after submitting his resignation.
Endo admitted he was aware of the problem but did not tell Abe when he was appointed farm minister.
"I deeply apologize for driving the public into having a distrust of politics," Endo said.
Abe told reporters later in the day, "Of course, I bear responsibility as the one who tapped (Endo). I would like to fulfill my duties (as prime minister) by doing everything in my power to make sure there is no delay in agriculture-related administration."
Yoshio Urushibara, Diet affairs chief of New Komeito, said Endo's exit was unavoidable.
"The fact that (ministers) have had to be repeatedly replaced is just disgraceful," Urushibara said. "There is nothing else to say but that (Abe's background checks of ministers) was insufficient."
Urushibara added, however, that the Abe Cabinet will be able to contain further damage from this setback as Endo's dismissal was swift.
The opposition parties meanwhile slammed Abe for choosing Endo.
Democratic Party of Japan Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama stressed that the DPJ, now the No. 1 force in the Upper House, will go after Abe over his selection of Endo, possibly submitting a censure motion against the prime minister in the chamber during the extraordinary Diet session that begins Sept. 10.
The DPJ "must severely hold Abe to account as the one who appointed Endo and question if he has what it takes to be prime minister (in the upcoming) Diet session," Hatoyama said.
Both Akagi and his predecessor, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, were embroiled in money-related scandals and had to be replaced. In Matsuoka's case, he was also under suspicion for having ties with an organization involved in bid-rigging. He hanged himself in May.
"A new Cabinet must start off with a clean image in order to regain public trust," Hatoyama said. "Considering that public trust in politics may never return, (we) think Abe should dissolve (the Lower House)."