In late April at an upscale hotel in Tokyo, more than 100 people thronged to have their photo taken with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso.
The fundraising party, organized by Ikokai, Aso’s faction in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, attracted more than 2,500 people, twice more than last year, when the LDP was the largest opposition force.
“We only had 12 members in my faction last year, but now it has almost tripled,” Aso, who doubles as finance minister, said in a speech at the event. “I was also very surprised that we have this many guests this year. I apologize if there is not enough food for everybody.”
Ikokai, which now has 34 members, is not an exception. With the July Upper House election looming, the LDP’s factions are scrambling to fill their war chests by throwing fundraising parties to cash in on the popularity of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who began his second run as leader by promising not to bow to their demands.
Despite their selfish nature, the LDP’s factions have been cooperating with their president across the board as the party prepares to sweep July’s election. But are their power-mongering ways gone for good, or are they just biding their time until the party takes total control of the Diet?
Traditionally, factions represent influential politicians with their own agendas, which don’t always follow the mainstream line of the LDP. The groups have been around since the LDP was formed in 1955 by the merger of the conservative forces the Liberal Party headed by Shigeru Yoshida and the Japan Democratic Party led by Ichiro Hatoyama.
Faction leaders school rookie legislators on the inner workings of the political system and provide them with funding and posts that can build their influence and bolster their constituencies. In return, members pledge their fidelity by voting for faction-fielded candidates for the LDP presidency — a position that includes the prime ministership when the party is in charge of the government.
But factions have traditionally been a hotbed for money-driven politics. As faction leaders peddled their influence to accrue wealth and power, bribes inevitably followed, resulting in high-profile corruption cases like the 1988 Recruit stock-for-favors scandal, in which then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita and dozens of other politicians received preflotation shares in a Recruit Co. subsidiary and profited by selling them after the stock went public.
In addition, the multiseat constituency system at the time promoted infighting as candidates endorsed by each of the LDP’s factions ended up competing against each other in elections.
“The factions aren’t like they used to be during the multiple-constituency district era,” claimed Takeshi Iwaya, a Lower House member of Aso’s faction. “What we do here is enhance our policymaking skills, contributing to our party.”
Legislative changes in the 1990s helped weaken factionalism. The revision of the Political Funds Control Law in 1994 and the debut of the single-seat electoral system in 1996 reduced the financial excesses and infighting. But the factions still kick and fight for Cabinet seats, resulting in prime ministers sometimes handing out ministerial posts to unqualified people to placate the groups and ensure internal party cooperation.
Tired of the malaise, Abe, also beholden to the factions, pledged in December to abolish factionalism and consolidate most of the party’s decision-making power under his administration.
Since returning to power in December, the LDP has played more of a role in educating its 119 rookies by sending them to meetings of the Diet affairs committees. Nevertheless, about 60 percent of them ended up joining the party’s seven major factions.
“I think it would be hard to learn the intricate balance of politics on my own,” said another lawmaker who joined Aso’s group but declined to be named.
There are good reasons to join a faction. Lawmakers without such affiliation can sometimes have a difficult time collecting information, financial backing, or making the impact needed to climb the party ladder.
One of the biggest reasons why maverick Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba lost the LDP presidential election last year was because Abe had the support of his faction, Seiwakai Seisaku Kenkyukai, the party’s biggest.
That’s why a group for unaffiliated lawmakers was launched earlier this year.
Some call it the de facto Ishiba faction.
“I decided not to belong to any faction because my mentors said that I did not have to pick one immediately,” a bureaucrat-turned-politician who asked not to be named said. “But I worry whether ranking members might view me as a former bureaucrat who thinks he’s too smart to join any factions.”
Abe’s popularity has allowed him to fend off the packs so far, and his approval ratings are still hovering around 70 percent. But will the divisive politics of the factions and their affiliated interest groups return once the LDP attempts to consolidate power after its expected victory in the Upper House election?
“The LDP’s disease could cripple itself because it shelved the issue on how to deal with its factions while it was in the opposition,” said Jun Iio, a political science professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
But Iio said the challenges Abe will face after the July election will be much tougher than trudging through the opposition by LDP ranks to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact.
Abe and his team will have to come up with real economic growth strategies based on deregulation — an area the LDP has historically loathed — to give substance to the slick media campaign dubbed “Abenomics.”
Iio also warned that Abe’s power-seeking minions might decide to protest the sales tax hike when the time comes to assess whether economic conditions are right for the gut-wrenching measure.
“Even though they are cooperating with Abe now, it’s possible the LDP’s lawmakers will start to act selfishly again after the election,” Iio said. “The factions might protest party decisions and try to kick Abe out of office.”