Japanese government whitewash scandals ahead of elections

Japanese lawmakers decide to stall the beleaguered government's rush to clean up a major political scandal ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections.

Opposition parties followed through on their earlier threat to submit the motion against Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa if the ruling coalition attempted to rush legislation through parliament to resolve the disappearance of records affecting some 50 million pension cases.

The scandals hitting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government - which also include separate allegations of bid-rigging and misuse of public funds - culminated earlier this week with the suicide of Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka just before he was to face questioning in parliament.

Matsuoka was accused of receiving illicit political donations from contractors with a government-affiliated organization.

The ruling coalition was eager to quickly pass legislation Thursday that would lift the statute of limitations for pensioners seeking benefits lost by record-keeping errors. A second bill would abolish the Social Insurance Agency and transfer pension oversight to another entity.

The coalition wants to pass the bills before the parliamentary session ends on June 23 - less than a month before the July 22 elections for the upper house.

"These two bills are extremely important to ... restore trust in the pension system," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki. "We have answered the demands of the opposition parties."

But opposition parties called for more debate.

"Once again, they are trying to cover up problems," said Yoshiaki Takaki, lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party. "We will firmly protest such a move. We should deliberate the bills and clarify what the problems are."

Ahead of the bills' deliberation, the opposition submitted a censure motion against Ichiro Aisawa, chairman of the lower house steering committee, criticizing his support for a debate on the legislation. It was voted down because Abe's ruling bloc holds a majority in the lower house.

A censure motion submitted by opposition lawmakers against Yoshitaka Sakurada, the chairman of the committee on health, welfare and labor for the lower house, also failed.

As the imbroglio mounted, Abe's support ratings were falling. The Asahi newspaper released a poll on Tuesday showing approval for Abe's Cabinet falling to 36 percent, the lowest since he took office last September.

In one of the world's most rapidly aging societies, the pension scandal involves a lot of money.

The Health Ministry estimates that if the bills clear parliament, about 250,000 pensioners would be entitled to receive pension benefits worth an additional total 95 billion yen (US$785 million; EUR584.95 million), Japanese newspapers and Kyodo News agency reported.

The ministry could not immediately confirm the reports.

The pension issue was potentially damaging to Abe. Asahi reported on Tuesday that a series of polls showed about 85 percent of respondents chose pensions as the issue they were most concerned about.