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Unless one is a political analyst or blessed with an excellent memory, it is close to impossible to correctly rattle off the names of Japan’s prime ministers since the late 1980s. There have simply been too many in that time.

Whoever wins Tuesday’s election for president of the Liberal Democratic Party will probably serve as the nation’s 11th prime minister in less than 14 years.

Few would deny that such a rapid turnover in leadership is contrary to the nation’s national interests.

Nevertheless, the practice has gone on unabated, and the reasons appear to involve an intricate mix of structural problems.

Kingpins and puppets

Factionalism has existed within the LDP since the party was formed in 1955, but it was during the era of Kakuei Tanaka, a charismatic prime minister who served from 1972 to 1974, when a single LDP faction — his — began to wield so much power that its kingmakers began to control even prime ministers, according to party insiders.

“Even after Tanaka stepped down as prime minister, he continued to exert influence on politics from outside the government,” said Ichita Yamamoto, an LDP House of Councilors member. “That’s how the so-called double structure of political power was created.”

The late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who inherited the LDP’s largest faction from Tanaka and succeeded him as kingmaker, also wielded considerable influence over politics — even from his hospital bed — until his death last year.

“The real leaders went behind the scenes, while their puppets, who tended to be merely coordinators among the factions, were installed as prime minister. This has left recent prime ministers unable to demonstrate leadership,” said the 43-year-old Yamamoto, who is a member of the party’s second-largest group, led by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Without direct control over the party or government, these puppet prime ministers are more likely to be short-lived since they can be replaced at the whim of the kingmakers, observers say.

Some analysts claim that the governments of Toshiki Kaifu, prime minister from 1989 to 1991, and Mori are typical examples of “puppet administrations.”

And even if former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, whose name currently hangs over the largest faction’s door, stages a comeback by winning the LDP race, some observers say he will be even more of a puppet than any other because his group is now largely under the control of influential figures like former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka and senior Upper House member Mikio Aoki.

But why do the kingpins remain underground?

Tainted with scandal

According to former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobuo Ishihara, it is because of the Hashimoto faction’s history with money — dirty money.

“Both Tanaka and Takeshita lost power due to bribery scandals,” said Ishihara, who served under seven prime ministers, including Takeshita, between 1987 and 1996. “They, as the top leader of the most powerful faction, tried to collect political funds for their group’s members . . . because money was the group’s centripetal force.

“There was a limit on the collection of money through legal means, so they dabbled in dirty money.” The legacy of scandals has made it difficult for the faction’s members to bask in the spotlight, even though a new law established in the mid-1990s introduced a system through which political parties are partly subsidized, many observers say.

The LDP’s loss of its majority in the House of Representatives in the 1993 general election, ending 38 years of single-party rule, also served to make its power base increasingly unstable, according to Takeshi Sasaki, president of the University of Tokyo and a political scientist.

The fact that the LDP has since had to form coalition governments to remain in power has made it more difficult for the party to retain the same leader for a long period of time, leading to the rapid rotation of prime ministers in the 1990s, he said.

The instability of the coalitions has also affected non-LDP prime ministers, including Tsutomu Hata, who lasted just two months, and Morihiro Hosokawa, who resigned after eight months.

Matter of preparedness

Another big factor behind the short stints of prime ministers may be that over the past decade some LDP lawmakers who were not properly prepared have assumed the role, Sasaki observed.

He maintained that former leaders, such as Yasuhiro Nakasone and Tanaka, established close-knit networks of academic and political advisers by the time they became prime minister. Nowadays, however, prime ministers do not seem to possess “intellectual devices,” including counsel from bureaucrats, he said.

In today’s political arena, prime ministers are seen rushing to seek advice from academics after taking office.

Said Sasaki: “Politicians nowadays seem to make light of the fact that they are in charge of Japan, whose performance greatly affects other nations.”

Revolving door

Another factor that should not be overlooked is that the nature of the LDP itself makes it necessary to “rotate” posts among its members to cement their loyalty, some experts said.

According to Norihiko Narita, a professor of political science at Surugadai University, the LDP is not a party of lawmakers with similar beliefs but a group of ambitious people aiming to take the highroad to political success — ultimately becoming LDP president, and, in all likelihood, prime minister.

But too many people are waiting in the wings, Narita pointed out, explaining that the president’s term therefore tends to be short to satisfy everyone’s needs.

The same can be said about Cabinet posts. To maintain party solidarity, it is necessary for the LDP’s leaders to allocate portfolios based on a strict and clear standard of promotion — the number of times elected to the Diet.

Prime ministers also often reshuffle their Cabinet during their term to satisfy lawmakers eager for the experience and clout that comes with being a minister.

The two-year term of the LDP presidency itself has also been blamed by some for installing a revolving door in front of the position — and subsequently to the entrance of the prime minister’s chambers.

The late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi complained during his term that the stint is too short to draw up long-term policies.

The LDP’s Yamamoto proposes extending the term to “at least” three years so that not only Cabinet members but all lawmakers can maintain a long-term perspective.

But the LDP’s structure is not solely to blame.

Peripheral factors

Japan’s parliamentary system is also designed in a way that tends to give ultimate power not to the government, but to the ruling party, said Narita, who has conducted comparative studies of parliamentary systems in a number of nations.

“What is peculiar about Japan’s system is that the ruling party examines bills drafted by government officials in advance and before they are submitted to the legislature,” he said.

This effectively strips the prime minister of much of the authority to pursue policy goals, the scholar said.

Some critics also point out Japan’s system allows the opposition to submit a binding no-confidence motion against the Cabinet more frequently than in other countries with parliaments, including Germany and Britain.

Some also argue that the media can be held partly to blame for Japan’s short-lived administrations, as they often adopt an antigovernment stance in an attempt to capitalize on a dissatisfied public.

“The borderline between quality papers and tabloids is disappearing,” a senior Mori aide lamented. “Influential newspapers are now bashing the prime minister not for policy blunders but for factors more in the realm of public entertainment, such as his gaffes and his past deeds.”

But can any, if not all, of these problems be overcome?

Future of factions

Former Health Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a reform-minded candidate running in the presidential election, is proposing the introduction of a system whereby the public would be able to directly elect the prime minister, saying such a change would “instantly make old LDP factions disappear.”

Many young LDP members share Koizumi’s opinion that the factions, which have long been the root of the estranged ties between politics and the general public, must and will change soon.

“Joining the LDP’s largest faction is the same as working for a big company. The business is stable and they pay you the most,” Yamamoto said.

But recently these groups have begun experiencing financial difficulties, and even Cabinet members are not exempt from electoral defeat, as was seen in last year’s Lower House election.

“With the distribution of posts and money (via factions) looking less attractive,” Yamamoto said, “a new breed of LDP members is becoming more interested in appealing to the public through the strength of their own presence.”

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