The collapse of the Liberal Democratic Party empire has cast a dark shadow over party headquarters in Tokyo’s Nagata-cho, the political heartland. Stunned by its devastating defeat in the Aug. 30 Lower House election, the LDP lies in pieces.
But there is no time for mourning. It has one goal, and that is to build its numbers back up so it can retake control of the government from the Democratic Party of Japan, which clobbered the LDP in the poll. To regroup, the LDP must find a strong leader and a new identity.
“We now must be ready to fight as an opposition force,” Prime Minister Taro Aso told fellow LDP lawmakers at a recent party gathering. “We must be reborn and reseize government power.”
With Aso stepping down next week both as party president and prime minister, the LDP is set to hold a presidential poll on Sept. 28. The next president, who will be the leader of the largest opposition party, must battle the DPJ-led tripartite coalition and ensure the LDP comes out on top in next summer’s Upper House election.
Although no one has stepped forward as a candidate, some names have surfaced, including heavyweight former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, deputy LDP Secretary General Nobuteru Ishihara, ex-Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and farm minister Shigeru Ishiba.
And an internal battle has already begun between the “old’ and the “new” LDP.
Younger ranks have strongly demanded change, starting with openly picking the next LDP leader instead of the behind-closed-doors practice of the past.
“Everywhere I’ve traveled in Japan people have strongly demanded that the LDP stop the practice of its gloomy-faced bosses conspiring together,” said Tokio Kano, the departing senior vice minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. “I want the LDP to hold an open presidential election.”
Factions have long played a key role in selecting LDP presidents and the power struggle between them was intense. Various past prime ministers, including Kakuei Tanaka, Takeo Fukuda and, more recently, Ryutaro Hashimoto and Yoshiro Mori, were all faction leaders, taking their turn at running the government.
The faction leaders controlled the cash and authority and were strongest under the former multiseat constituency system in which even members of one’s own party were rivals. But since the single-seat constituency system debuted in 1996, their power weakened rapidly as the money and authority shifted to the party headquarters.
Defeat in last month’s election, however, decimated the factions. The largest, led by Machimura, now only has 49 members, while the second-largest, headed by former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, dropped to 37.
With this massive decrease in members on top of past criticism over the factions’ exclusivity, people have begun questioning their need.
“I think it is important for the LDP to show the people that it has reflected on the past and changed,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, former minister of financial services and administrative reform. “I think consideration should be given to abolishing the factions.”
Last week, former Environment Minister Yuriko Koike submitted her withdrawal from the Machimura faction.
“For a long time, people have said to me that it is no longer the era of factions. Now is the chance,” Koike wrote in her e-mail magazine.
But media reports suggest the deep-rooted “old” LDP is still functioning.
One of the key names floated for the presidency had been outspoken health minister Yoichi Masuzoe. Because he is popular with the public, LDP lawmakers backed his candidacy. Masuzoe himself also appeared to be willing at one point.
But right after the election, he reportedly met with LDP heavyweights Mori and Mikio Aoki, “the boss” of the party’s Upper House caucus, and after these closed meetings, Masuzoe said he would not run.
Young and midechelon members are meanwhile in crisis mode. The general election left the LDP with only 119 seats, down from the 303 it had when the chamber was dissolved in July. Among the defeated were many young and midcareer LDP members.
At a meeting Tuesday with more than 70 younger lawmakers, Keiji Furuya, head of public relations for the LDP, suggested everyone quit their factions.
“Why doesn’t everyone just submit a notice of withdrawal?” Furuya asked. “Factions are a thing of the past. . . . There is absolutely no way we can win the next Upper House election at the faction level.”
Political observers say the LDP still can rebuild and eventually regain the government helm, but they also agree it will be an extremely difficult process.
Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University, said neither popularity nor youth is going to help the new leader, regardless of who it is.
“The LDP has no future if it continues to wage factional battles, in other words, the old LDP versus the young members,” Sone said. “It needs a system whereby members can be trained to become presidential material in the short term, and demonstrate anew it has the ability to run the government.”