When ailing former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita’s retirement from politics was reported last week, the news may have meant little to people on the street, but it greatly shook the Liberal Democratic Party.

Takeshita has continued to wield tremendous influence over the LDP even after he was hospitalized nearly a year ago. Soon after reports of his retirement came, sources in the LDP’s largest faction hinted that his brother, Wataru, will seek to be elected to Takeshita’s seat in the Shimane No. 2 constituency. Founded by Takeshita, the faction’s helm was later held by former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

But the repercussions are likely to continue in the months leading up to the next general elections, which are expected to take place this summer.

Some political observers say the retirement of Takeshita, 76, following on the heels of Obuchi’s falling into a coma, may trigger power struggles within the LDP and change the political landscape in the ruling party.

Some analysts also predict that turmoil within the LDP’s largest faction, which currently has 95 Diet members, could threaten the stability of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s government.

The Mori government apparently hinges on the faction’s support, but other factions may seek to gain more power in the party.

Although Mori was hastily installed as prime minister after Obuchi suffered a massive stroke April 2, leading figures of the Obuchi faction — including Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fukushiro Nukaga and LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka — still hold key posts in both the government and LDP.

In addition to Obuchi’s illness, Takeshita’s retirement dealt a major psychological blow to the faction, with some members expressing concern that the vacuum in its leadership will greatly reduce its long-held clout in the party.

“Takeshita’s retirement is that of the last real LDP faction boss,” who had a vast network of contacts both in the ruling and opposition camps and who took care of junior members, including providing financial support for their elections, said a former member of the faction who declined to be named.

Although now called the Obuchi faction, Takeshita established the group in 1987 after splitting the powerful faction established by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Takeshita reached the peak of his political career in November 1987 when he became prime minister. Besides himself, his faction has fielded two other prime ministers — Ryutaro Hashimoto and Obuchi.

Although Obuchi later succeeded Takeshita as the faction’s leader, Takeshita remained a major behind-the-scenes kingmaker.

Even after Takeshita was hospitalized in April 1999 suffering from what has been described as lower back pain, members of the faction lined up to campaign for him in his constituency in Shimane Prefecture. From around February, senior LDP members began meeting with Takeshita’s supporters in the constituency without the participation of Takeshita himself.

“Even though he is bed-ridden in the hospital, Takeshita has kept power in the past year because there was a possibility that he would return to national politics, and faction members as well as other LDP members have been well aware of his strong influence over politics,” said Minoru Morita, a political analyst.

But now that his retirement is certain, a major question has surfaced: Who will succeed Obuchi as leader of the largest faction?

Although such key figures as Aoki and Nonaka are temporarily taking care of factional matters in Obuchi’s absence, there appears no politician strong enough to head the faction and take control of the LDP.

Tamisuke Watanuki, who became nominal head of the faction when Obuchi became prime minister, stressed during a recent faction meeting that he will strive to maintain its unity. But he is widely expected to be appointed speaker of the Lower House after the next election, a role that requires him to leave the LDP.

Some observers predict Hashimoto is a strong candidate to lead the faction while leaving Aoki and Nonaka some influence.

It has been reported that Aoki, an Upper House member and close aide of Takeshita, might try to win election to Takeshita’s vacant Lower House seat. But Aoki denied this and indicated he has no ambition to move to the lower chamber.

Nonaka has emerged as one of the most influential LDP politicians in recent years, especially under the current coalition government. It is believed his close ties with New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner, has greatly boosted his clout within the ruling bloc.

But despite being elected to the Lower House six times, being a chief Cabinet secretary and currently holding the LDP’s No. 2 post, Nonaka is widely seen as too junior to head the faction, which puts a strong emphasis on seniority.

If Nonaka took over the faction, those who have more political experience may leave the group along with members who oppose Nonaka, observers say.

In an apparent effort to refute speculation that he plans to take over the faction, Nonaka, who has been taking care of the party’s preparations for the next general elections, recently declared he will resign as secretary general if the LDP falls short of its goal — to secure 229 of the Lower House’s 480 seats — in the elections.

“Nonaka is one of the most influential members in the faction, but his status may be threatened depending on the results of the elections,” Morita said.

Regardless of what happens after the Lower House polls, pundits say that, for now, the faction will try to stay unified because the elections are just around the corner.

“The faction will not go to pieces” with the loss of Takeshita and Obuchi, said Shigezo Hayasaka, political analyst and former secretary of Tanaka.

“The faction members, on the contrary, will try hard to strengthen their unity to maintain the power within the party,” Hayasaka said.

Faction gets pep talk

The Liberal Democratic Party’s largest faction, headed by former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, emphasized its unity at a fundraising party Tuesday night in the absence of its leaders.

“Some people say (the Obuchi faction) will eventually decline, but we will stand firm as a rock,” said Tamisuke Watanuki, who serves as chairman of the group.

More than 3,000 people, including Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and leaders of other LDP factions, attended the event, held at a Tokyo hotel. The Obuchi faction has 58 members in the Lower House and 38 in the upper chamber.

Obuchi remains comatose after suffering a stroke on April 2. In addition, former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, Obuchi’s mentor and the group’s founder, is reportedly considering retirement due to poor health.

Watanuki said that Takeshita, 76, was in good health when he visited him earlier this month at a Tokyo hospital. Takeshita has been at the hospital for more than a month for what has been described as lower back pain.

“(Takeshita) was saying that he is sorry for what happened to Mr. Obuchi, but he wants us to do our best,” Watanuki said. “He told me to keep up the faction, as it has been always preserved by everybody’s efforts.”