Japan's PM Suga under pressure over predecessor's scandal


FILE PHOTO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan June 18, 2020. Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was grilled by opposition lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he made inaccurate claims in parliament last year about a potential breach of laws on gift-giving by his predecessor.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is under fire after sources told local media his office helped cover the costs of dinner parties for supporters, in a possible violation of funding and election laws and in direct conflict with Abe's vehement denials in parliament last year.

Politicians in Japan are forbidden to provide anything to constituents that could be construed as a gift. The rule is so strict that one cabinet minister quit in 2014 after distributing paper fans during the summer.

Suga has been linked to the scandal, which dogged Abe in the final year of his tenure, as he was the then-prime minister's right-hand man during his 2012-2020 term.

He told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that he had "always checked in advance with former Prime Minister Abe" on his responses about the matter, deflecting the blame for any potentially inaccurate statements.

"I will refrain from commenting further, as it involves the activities of an investigative force," he added, when pressed further about inconsistent statements in parliament.

Abe vehemently denied his office had subsidized parties during parliamentary sessions last year where he was grilled by opposition lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Abe said he was aware of the accusations and promised that his office will "fully cooperate" with Tokyo prosecutors who are looking into the matter, but declined to comment further.

Opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano said on Tuesday the media revelations meant Abe had lied in parliament when he denied his office subsidised parties.

"Prime Minister Suga was also the ringleader of the Abe administration in his position as chief cabinet secretary, and he can't escape that responsibility," Edano said, according to NHK.

Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, stepped down in September due to health problems, but has stayed on as a lower house lawmaker.

The opposition had demanded he address the accusations during a parliamentary hearing on Wednesday, but the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) refused to concede to the request, saying it was "unreasonable."

Local media, including public broadcaster NHK, said Abe's office helped cover a shortfall of about 8 million yen ($76,540) over the last five years of his premiership to hold annual dinner parties at swanky hotels for his supporters, citing people close to the ex-PM.

Tokyo prosecutors are analysing hotel documents that suggest Abe's office partly subsidized the receptions, and conducted a voluntary questioning of Abe's former aides, media said on Monday.

In interviews with NHK, sources close to the ex-PM said staff members working for Abe had told their former boss when asked last year by Abe whether the office had partially footed the bills for parties that the ticket sales had covered the costs when, in fact, they had not.

(Reporting by Sakura Murakami; editing by Richard Pullin)

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