Japan LDP suspends former minister Tanaka

Linda Sieg,TOKYO, Reuters

Japan’s ruling party on Thursday suspended the membership of popular former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka for two years, an unprecedented move that could further damage the party and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The Liberal Democratic Party handed down the harsh punishment — akin to expulsion — in response to Tanaka’s refusal to support a candidate in a by-election and for failing to cooperate in a probe into allegations that she had misused public funds.

“This is very harsh. Everyone was surprised,” said LDP lawmaker Katsuei Hirasawa, once a close confident of the fiery Tanaka. “It’s very close to expelling her from the party.”

The head of the LDP’s ethics panel, Nobuyuki Hanashi, told reporters it was the first time the party had taken such a step.

The punishment prevents Tanaka from running in an election as an LDP candidate during the next two years or from voting in a party presidential election, and it deprives her of party funding for any campaign, political analysts said.

She will remain in parliament, where the ruling coalition has a comfortable majority, but will have to sit as an independent.

Tanaka’s support played a key role in Koizumi’s stunning rise to power last year, but she quickly became a thorn in his side as foreign minister in his new cabinet.

Koizumi sacked Tanaka — daughter of late LDP kingmaker and Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka — to end her high-profile and disruptive battle with foreign ministry officials and Muneo Suzuki, the LDP powerbroker who backed them.

But Tanaka’s sacking in January backfired on Koizumi, triggering a steep slide in his sky-high support as Suzuki himself became mired in a scandal that led to his arrest for alleged bribe taking on Wednesday.

Tanaka was accused of misusing public funds intended to pay an aide’s salary.

“There is no plus in this for the LDP or for Koizumi,” said UBS Warburg political analyst Shigenori Okazaki. Playing her cards LDP lawmaker Hirasawa said the punishment was inevitable given Tanaka’s refusal to cooperate with executive orders, and he predicted her clout would fade due to her isolation.

“This is the same as becoming an independent, so her political power will decrease and her comments will lose impact.”

Analysts said that might well prove to be wishful thinking on the part of party barons.

“If she lashes out personally at Koizumi…it won’t produce a good image,” said Steven Reed, a political science professor at Chuo University in Tokyo.

“But if she does it well, it could really hurt Koizumi badly,” he said.

“She was a symbol of politics ‘not as usual’ in the LDP and she could continue to be a symbol of change somewhere else.”

Tanaka has not minced words since her sacking, accusing Koizumi of undermining her efforts at reform and accusing him of joining the very anti-reformers he had vowed to fight.

There had been speculation she might bolt the LDP, either to join a new party or possibly even to link up with the opposition.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” UBS Warburg’s Okazaki said. “IT depends on what moves she makes. She’s still popular and she could become the core of some new movement.”