The head of what was once the most powerful faction within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is facing a crisis ahead of September’s leadership race.

Fukushiro Nukaga, a Lower House member who has led one of the largest party factions over the past nine years, is being pressured to step down. All 21 Upper House members of the faction have jointly demanded his immediate resignation, threatening to leave the group if Nukaga refuses, multiple faction sources said.

If Nukaga’s likely departure becomes a reality, the faction could play a key role in the power struggles leading up to the LDP presidential election set for September. The bloc could throw its weight behind a candidate challenging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the race, media outlets have speculated.

A key Upper House member of Nukaga’s faction, who has called for his resignation, didn’t deny that possibility.

“How many members have left the faction (under Nukaga’s leadership)? The faction will be in disarray if this goes on,” the member said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Frustration has built up “over many years,” and the upcoming LDP presidential race was “among many factors” that prompted the Upper House members to rebel against Nukaga, the senior member said.

“(Nukaga) doesn’t have the power to keep members united,” he said.

Nukaga’s faction — called Heisei Kenkyu Kai — is presently the third-largest in the LDP, with 55 Diet members, including the 21 in the Upper House.

The head of an intraparty LDP faction is usually seen as a prospective candidate for party president and thus for prime minister. But Nukaga has never challenged the largest faction, effectively led by Abe, over the past nine years. He even reportedly indicated his intention to support Abe’s re-election in September.

Despite his apparent loyalty to Abe, Nukaga has not been rewarded with posts in the party leadership or the Cabinet since Abe began his second stint as prime minister in 2012.

Nukaga’s weak position in the party underlines the slow decline of LDP factions overall, which were once the most powerful forces in Japanese politics.

The predecessor of Heisei Kenkyu Kai was established by the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in 1987, as key members of a faction led by the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka bolted and formed a new group called Keisei Kai. The group boasted more than 100 members at its peak and dominated politics as the largest faction of the ruling LDP until the early 2000s. It was renamed Heisei Kenkyu Kai in 1996.

At the time, LDP faction leaders were the main political players. On top of receiving shady corporate donations, they tightly controlled rank-and-file members by doling out massive amounts of political funds.

The power of the faction heads, however, was drastically weakened with a revision to the Political Funds Control Law and other electoral reforms in 1996. The former enhanced the transparency of political fundraising, clearly weakening the financial power of faction leaders. Heisei Kenkyu Kai was hit particularly hard by money scandals, including those involving unreported donations from the Japan Dental Association in the early 2000s.

In contrast, the power of the LDP president and secretary-general were greatly strengthened through the 1996 reforms, which also introduced single-seat districts.

In the former multiple-seat system, several LDP candidates had to compete against each other in elections, which is the reason members naturally split into several factions. But under the single-seat system, just one candidate is chosen by party leadership. The change has given greater power to the party president and led to a decline of the factions, political analysts say.

Nukaga took his position as faction chief in 2009 and has failed to stem the decline of Heisei Kenkyu Kai. In the same year, former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba left the faction to take the post of LDP policy chief. Ishiba didn’t return to Nukaga’s faction and instead formed his own in 2015, further eroding the clout of Heisei Kenkyu Kai. Ishiba is now recognized as a potential challenger to Abe in the LDP presidential election.

Another senior Upper House member of Heisei Kenkyu Kai argued that Nukaga should be replaced to prepare for the Upper House election scheduled for summer 2019.

“We lost two faction members in the (2016) Upper House election. It’s better to change the chairman now,” he said.

The 21 Upper House members have jointly demanded that Wataru Takeshita — faction founder Noboru Takeshita’s half brother — become the new chairman.

However, during a news conference on Feb. 2, Takeshita, now chairman of the LDP’s general council, admitted that factions are not as strongly united as they were in the past when it comes to power struggles within the party.

“Fewer and fewer lawmakers are staying united in factions to wage political battles,” Takeshita said.

It appears the members of Nukaga’s faction have yet to discuss or seek a consensus over who should be their candidate for party president, he said.

Nukaga plans to depart for South Korea on Friday afternoon to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. Political observers expect he will decide on whether to leave his position within the faction by then.

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