Even though the public doesn’t have a direct say in who becomes LDP president — and thus prime minister — because the leader is chosen by party members, Abe’s popularity makes him a virtual shoo-in.
At the same time, the LDP appears to have moved away from backroom factional politics since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took over in April 2001; public opinion counts for more in electing the party leader.
“With a popular leader, (LDP members) realized they could win both the Upper and Lower House elections,” said Hideo Otake, a professor of political science at Kyoto University. “And looking at the public opinion polls, it is obvious that Abe is by far the most popular candidate — and therefore, (the majority of LDP members will) back him.”
Since Koizumi took office, the LDP has won three of the last four national elections, the exception being the 2004 Upper House election. It won the September 2005 Lower House campaign in a landslide, taking nearly 300 out of 480 seats.
“In the old days, there used to be backdoor deals (between the presidential candidate and the faction bosses) to ensure ministerial posts for its members in return for the faction’s support in the presidential election,” Otake said. “The faction leader determined whom to vote for based on these deals . . . so those who supported the winning side got the important positions.”
But the factions have weakened significantly since the multiseat constituency system was abolished in 1996. Under that system, two or more LDP candidates, usually from rival factions, competed in the same district.
Koizumi’s arrival on the scene has also contributed to the decline of factional politics.
He captured the public’s imagination by promising to destroy the old LDP, ending the factional politics seen as fostering corruption. Although Koizumi himself had been a member of the Mori faction, he left the group when he became prime minister and portrayed himself as being above the fray. Abe has followed in Koizumi’s footsteps, saying he will leave the LDP’s largest faction, led by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.
That isn’t the only reason for Abe’s popularity. According to Akihiro Nishimura, an LDP lawmaker and member of the Mori faction, one of the main reasons people support Abe is his work on the North Korean abduction issue.
“Since World War II, Japanese people have suppressed their nationalistic feelings” because prewar nationalism was believed to have led Japan to war, said Nishimura. “I think Abe’s firm stance (on North Korea) touched the hearts of many Japanese people.”
Nishimura also argues that Abe’s popularity goes beyond his own faction.
“Excluding those who support (Foreign Minister Taro) Aso and (Finance Minister Sadakazu) Tanigaki, most LDP lawmakers are strongly supportive of Abe.”
Tanigaki and Aso have backing from their factions, but they are small. Tanigaki’s faction has 15 members, while Aso belongs to the smallest faction, led by Speaker of the Lower House Yohei Kono, with a mere 11 members. Although both managed to collect the required 20 nominations required to run in the LDP election, their chances of victory are slim and a fourth candidate is unlikely to appear.
Many factions are reportedly lining up behind Abe, and a group of 100 young LDP lawmakers has formed a group backing Abe that stretches across factional lines. Altogether, Abe has reportedly secured the support of more than 70 percent of the 403 LDP lawmakers eligible to vote in the presidential race.
“This is highly unusual. I think (this) shows the complete collapse of the factional system,” said Nishimura.
Yuzo Yamamoto, leader of the cross-factional Abe support group, said one of the reasons for forming such a group was to support Abe in a “pure” way, doing away with the negative image of factions as simply vehicles for the ambitions of their members.
“In a way, forming a group across the factions is a new experiment in an era when the strength of factions have weakened,” said Yamamoto, who himself is a member of the faction led by former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura. “Had my faction ordered me not to (form this group), I probably would have left because I was eager to give Japan a new prime minister who would create a new political era.”
The group’s original purpose when it was formed in June was to back Abe’s campaign to reduce the widening gap between the rich and the poor and give a “second chance” to those in need. At the end of August, the group said it would support Abe’s candidacy.
Even more unusual than the multifaction support Abe has pocketed is that another group, comprising mainly of members of the Mori faction including former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Hakubun Shimomura, is also campaigning for Abe. He has thus gained the backing of two large groups within the party.
“Abe himself came to me and said that he wants to win the presidential election with a group unrelated to factions,” Yamamoto said. “I believe that Abe has taken out an insurance policy to ensure that no faction member can come (later) and demand compensation for the support he received in the election.”
Yamamoto added that members of his group took a risk in forming it, putting their positions within their own factions at risk.
But some observers are skeptical of the aims of the nonfactional group.
“Does (the group) really believe that Japan’s top priority is to give people a second chance?” asked Yasunori Sone, a political science professor at Keio University. “The group is trying to make a name for itself to make sure that it has influence over Abe’s Cabinet” once he is elected.
“But either way, it is an election that Abe has almost certainly won already and I doubt that (either group) will affect the result,” Sone said.