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Hiromu Nonaka’s sudden announcement that he will leave the House of Representatives has made at least one thing crystal clear — the largest faction in the Liberal Democratic Party is on the verge of breaking up.

Until Nonaka’s news conference Tuesday, members of the 100-strong faction led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto strove to maintain an image of unity despite sharp conflicts over choosing a candidate for the Sept. 20 LDP presidential election.

But no longer.

Nonaka, a former party secretary general, said he “cut off his path of retreat” to show his determination to fight faction members supporting Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the presidential race, specifically blaming senior faction members Kanezo Muraoka and Mikio Aoki, the LDP’s House of Councilors secretary general.

Late Tuesday night, Nonaka told reporters he is determined to line up his followers solidly behind Takao Fujii, a faction member running against Koizumi, even if it leads to the breakup of the faction.

“I’m determined to proceed even if I abandon people who are wandering around (seeking posts in the government or party by siding with the winner),” Nonaka said.

He has been one of the most vocal opponents of Koizumi’s belt-tightening administrative reforms, particularly privatization of postal services.

Muraoka and Aoki themselves have reservations over the prime minister’s policies but are apparently supporting Koizumi to exploit his popularity when elections for both Diet chambers are held within the next year.

The imbroglio in the Hashimoto faction also highlights the weakened power of LDP faction leaders, who were once the main players in any power struggle, insiders say.

“The era in which all faction members obey their leaders has no doubt ended,” said Lower House member Yoshitaka Sakurada, a junior Hashimoto faction member.

Sakurada is openly supporting Koizumi in the upcoming race despite strong pressure from Nonaka and other Lower House leaders of the faction. For a junior member who has survived only two Diet elections, rebelling like this against faction heavyweights was almost unthinkable in the past.

Indeed, political observers agree that major changes in the electoral system and stronger legal controls on political funds have severely eroded the power of the faction bosses, who once were expected to take care of their followers both in their election campaigns and fundraising efforts.

Instead, LDP members now depend heavily on subsidies from the government, which are provided to a political party’s headquarters, not to individual faction bosses.

This helps explain the expanding rift within the Hashimoto faction, particularly between Upper House members led by Aoki and Lower House members led by other executives.

Political commentator Minoru Morita pointed out that Aoki currently holds full control over the distribution of the government subsidies to each LDP Upper House member.

While this gives him strong influence over Upper House members, it is a different story for faction members who are in the Lower House, according to Morita.

The Hashimoto faction is now jointly run by several executive members, with no strong boss and no prospective successors to Hashimoto in sight, and the disarray is most evident among Lower House lawmakers, Morita said.

Nonaka said he has argued time and again that a faction with 100 members is too big to maintain.

“Now what I have been saying has become reality,” he said.

As for the future of the Hashimoto faction, Morita predicted that while the faction will continue to exist in name, in substance it will be divided up by several leaders who are loosely supported by their own followers.

The commentator also pointed out that with the departure of Nonaka and the weakening of the Hashimoto faction, Koizumi is losing a key factor in his extraordinarily high popularity among voters — visible confrontations with unpopular enemies who resist his reform drives.

“The power of Koizumi has reached its zenith,” Morita said. “I think it is going to be all downhill from now.”

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