Apart from one brief interval, the Liberal Democratic Party has been in power since it was formed in 1955, and every time it picks a new leader internal factions vie for power.
When Prime Minister Taro Aso won a landslide victory in the LDP’s presidential election last month, it was the first time in eight years the president was not chosen from the largest faction, which is currently led by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura.
Aso heads one of the smallest LDP factions, and his victory didn’t come easy. Starting in 2001, he ran numerous times for party president, and therefore prime minister. The fourth was the charm, and he had to rely on cross-factional support.
What constitutes an LDP faction and why did they form?
Although the LDP is a conservative party as a whole, its members — currently 386 lawmakers in the Diet’s Lower and Upper houses — are not always on the same political page and have formed factions, or political groups as some call them, to consolidate their views.
The factions are generally centered around powerful lawmakers considered possible candidates for LDP president.
Factionalism has been part of the party’s makeup since its founding, when groups formed around Diet heavyweights like Nobusuke Kishi, Hayato Ikeda, Eisaku Sato and Takeo Miki, who all became LDP presidents and prime ministers.
The factions have gone through minor splits and mergers over the years, but the core of each has remained effectively intact and has been handed down from one leader to another.
How many factions are there now and what is their power balance?
There are currently eight. As of Aug. 1, the largest was led by Machimura, with 88 members.
This faction produced the four prime ministers before Aso — Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. Past faction leaders include Fukuda’s father, the late Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, and Abe’s father, the late Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
The second largest is led by Yuji Tsushima and has 70 members. This had been the largest for several years and was the springboard to the prime ministership for the late Kakuei Tanaka, one of the most influential but also arguably most corrupt LDP lawmakers.
Prime Ministers Keizo Obuchi and Ryutaro Hashimoto were also leaders of this faction, and Ichiro Ozawa, president of the Democratic Party of Japan, was a key member before he bolted from the LDP in 1993.
The third-largest faction, with 61 members, is headed by Makoto Koga, chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Council.
The fourth is headed by former LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki, with 41 members; the fifth, led by former Finance Minister Bunmei Ibuki, has 28; the sixth is Aso’s faction with 20; the seventh is led by former LDP General Council Chairman Toshiro Nikai, with 16; and finally, former Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura heads the smallest faction at 15.
As of August, there were 48 lawmakers who didn’t belong to factions, including Koizumi, who left his faction when he became prime minister and never returned, and economic and fiscal policy minister Kaoru Yosano.
What are the merits of joining a faction?
One main aspect is being granted party executive positions or ministerial posts if the faction leader becomes party president. In recent years, such posts have been distributed relatively evenly in accordance to the size of the factions.
Fukuda, for example, chose many faction leaders for executive and ministerial posts, including Machimura, Ibuki, Nikai, Koga and Komura.
Fukuda’s successor, Aso, on the other hand, irked the Machimura faction by only awarding it two ministerial posts, while Ibuki’s group was given three.
Four days after being appointed, transport minister Nariaki Nakayama of the Machimura faction resigned over a series of verbal gaffes. Now the group only has education minister Ryu Shionoya in the Cabinet.
Why are the factions not as strong as they used to be?
A major factor is the introduction of the single-seat district system in 1994. Before that, the Lower House had a midsize multiseat constituency system in which several people from the same party ran against each other. Under the leadership of a strong faction head, members got full backing from their groups to win the election.
Enactment of the Party Subsidies Law in 1994 further weakened the factions. Until then, the groups were the main fundraising bodies and money was distributed to their members.
The new law stripped the faction chiefs of their purses and gave them to the party’s executives.
Now billions of yen in taxpayer money is given to the parties every year in accordance with their size.
These two laws, which drastically changed the political system, were introduced during the brief 10-month 1993-1994 span when the LDP was out of power.
Why did Koizumi proclaim the end to faction-led politics in his party?
When Koizumi became prime minister, he enjoyed overwhelming voter popularity due to his strong leadership and his stated goal of “destroying the LDP,” meaning its old way of doing things.
He broke free from the factional shackles and conducted politics his way.
One of the biggest internal changes he made was handpicking his Cabinet without paying heed to the factions’ strong recommendations. Instead of the traditional backdoor deals, he selected his ministers without consulting others, often surprising even those picked.
Under Koizumi in September 2005, the LDP had a historic Lower House election win, and 82 newcomers made it into the Diet. Koizumi urged the freshmen not to join factions and many followed his advice in the beginning.
Since Koizumi left office, has the LDP broken free from factional politics?
No. While factions may no longer be as strong as they once were, they still exist and media attention turns to their machinations whenever there is a presidential race.
Aso won a landslide victory last month partly due to the strong support he got from big names in other factions, including Mori, Machimura and Abe, as well as Yamasaki.
Machimura had Yuriko Koike and Yamasaki had Nobuteru Ishihara from their own factions run as candidates in the LDP leadership race, but the big shots openly supported Aso.
The number of nonfaction LDP members is declining. In August 2007, there were 79 who didn’t belong to a faction. Just one year later, however, the number had dropped to 48.
Atsushi Kusano, a political science professor at Keio University in Tokyo, wrote in his book “The Rules of Changing Government Power — The True Characters of Factions and Their Transitions” that factions will always exist.
“The changes of factions can be observed, but it will be impossible for the LDP or the Japanese political world to do without them,” he said.
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