This is the first of a two-part series on the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election slated for September.
At 4:13 p.m. on April 20, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived at Haneda airport in Tokyo, wrapping up a four-day trip to the United States to discuss bilateral trade and North Korea with President Donald Trump.
Abe, however, didn’t have a minute to spare. He headed straight to a meeting at a hotel in Minato Ward, arriving in just 35 minutes by car.
It was a meeting with assembly members from his Liberal Democratic Party from across the nation. Later in the day, he had two more meetings with LDP supporters, including from Yamaguchi Prefecture, where his constituency is.
Why was Abe rushing to have so many meetings?
Because he was concerned about his party’s presidential election in September, observers say.
Public support for his Cabinet has been dwindling amid two still-unraveling cronyism scandals involving private school operators.
Under a January 2014 revision to the LDP’s election rules, hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members across the country will be given more say in choosing the president, and therefore prime minister, since the LDP is the ruling party.
Half of the 810 ballots will be proportionally distributed to candidates based on the voting of rank-and-file members. The other half will be cast by the 405 Diet members, who get one ballot each. If no one gets a majority, a runoff will be held among the 405 Diet members and the 47 prefectural chapters, which get one vote each.
Before the revision, the prefectural chapters only got 300 ballots in the first round and rank-and-file members received none, while the runoff was limited to the votes of Diet members. In the 2015 presidential election, Abe was re-elected uncontested.
The revision has prompted Abe and his rivals to make frequent visits to the chapters and hold talks with rank-and-file members to maintain their support, observers say.
“The situation surrounding Abe’s administration is very tough now. So I think he is taking various measures to garner support from party members,” said Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui at an April 17 news conference.
“The prime minister is also the LDP president, so it is only natural for him to pay particular attention to the local branch association,” he added.
The likely candidates for the presidential race have already begun behind-the-scenes preparations.
On April 14, Abe visited the LDP’s Osaka branch to cement his support. This was followed by a May 11 visit by former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is considered Abe’s most likely challenger.
“I think everyone in this meeting is wondering how we should reform the LDP,” Ishiba said in a brief speech at the meeting with the 40 assembly members.
Ishiba, who served as minister in charge of regional economic revitalization, is believed to be more popular among party members in rural regions than in Tokyo.
In fact, in the first round of voting in the LDP’s 2012 presidential election, he beat Abe with 165 chapter and 34 Diet member votes, versus 87 chapter and 54 Diet member votes for Abe.
Because neither received a majority and a second round was held by just the Diet members. Abe barely won. This appears to be the reason Abe is trying to drum up local-level support this time.
Whether Abe can win a third term as LDP president in September remains to be seen, given the cronyism scandals involving Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen are still unfolding.
If any crucial evidence or testimony emerges proving Abe showed favoritism to either entity, it will inflict critical damage.
“I cannot immediately say ‘yes’ if I’m asked whether Mr. Abe will be definitely re-elected to continue to be the prime minister,” Wataru Takeshita, the LDP’s general council chairman in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, was quoted as saying Saturday by Jiji Press.
Takeshita heads the LDP’s third-largest faction. His remarks drew attention because the collective decisions of the LDP’s factions are likely to be a key factor when the 405 Diet members vote.
The LDP has seven factions, and those effectively headed by Abe, Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai say they plan to back Abe.
The three factions account for 200 members, or about half the party’s 405-strong Diet contingent. If those factions back Abe as they have done for the past five years, he is likely to win a majority of the Diet members, which will give him strong momentum for re-election.
Therefore, reaffirming this alliance is believed to be one of Abe’s basic strategies for winning the presidential race.
Aso, in particular, has been a key ally. Although Aso, who helped Abe win the 2012 race, is being pressured to step down amid scandals at the Finance Ministry, Abe has reportedly persuaded him to stay.
“The bond between Prime Minister Abe and Aso is very strong. It’s impossible for the two to part,” said Jun Matsumoto, director-general of Aso’s faction Shiko Kai, in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
“If Abe runs for re-election, it is only natural (for Aso’s faction) to support him,” said Matsumoto, a Lower House member from Yokohama and a key aide to Aso.
In addition to Ishiba, who heads a small faction of only 20 members called Suigetsu Kai, LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, head of the fourth-largest faction, has 47 members behind him and is also considered a potential candidate.
Kishida, however, has been loyal to Abe so far and is staying mum on whether he will run.
During a fundraising party for his faction on April 18, Kishida told an audience of thousands of supporters in a packed hotel hall that his faction “will take action if the decisive moment comes.” He didn’t elaborate.
“The faction hasn’t decided yet what it will do in the presidential election,” a source close to an executive of Kishida’s faction said earlier in May.
Internal affairs minister Seiko Noda, who does not belong to any faction, has expressed a willingness to enter the race, but it remains unclear if she will again fail to get the 20 endorsements needed from fellow Diet members to file her candidacy with the LDP’s presidential election committee. This is what happened to her in the 2015 election.
In the meantime, the third-largest faction, headed by Takeshita, with 55 members, stands to be a key player in the race, insiders say.
Heisei Kenkyu Kai was headed by former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga. But in February, 21 the Upper House members of the faction jointly pressured him to step down, partly because Nukaga had long been loyal to Abe and had never tried to increase the faction’s clout, according to two sources inside the faction.
Nukaga was thus forced to resign, allowing Takeshita, the half-brother of the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, its founder, to succeed him on April 19.
Takeshita has said his faction will not decide which candidate to support until right before the election. This is seen as political maneuvering to maximize its clout in the political games leading up to the race.
“That’s a very smart strategy. It has greatly increased the presence of the Takeshita faction,” said Masaaki Taira, a Lower House representative of Tokyo who is an executive in Ishiba’s faction.
“Now the Takeshita faction can be a key factor” in the presidential election, he said.
Taira is a founding member of Ishiba’s faction, Suigetsu Kai, and the head of its public relations committee. He said the faction was formed three years ago because Ishiba at the time had pledged to run for LDP president. So the faction is now ready to release its policy proposals if Ishiba formally throws his hat into the ring, Taira said.
“We can’t publicize our policy proposals now, but we are ready to announce them anytime when the right time comes,” Taira said.
Taira said he supports the basic concept of Abenomics, including flexible fiscal spending and ultra-loose monetary policy. But since Abe has been in office for more than five years, situations have changed and additional reforms and policy shifts are needed, he said.
According to media reports, executives of the major factions have met in recent weeks, raising speculation they may be discussing strategies for the election. But as the cronyism scandals involving Abe and his aides continue to unfold, each is apparently watching developments carefully to determine whether Abe’s popularity will rise, fall or level out.
Before the late 1990s, the factions’ leaders had a strong grip on their members because they provided them with financial support in the form of shady funds raised from big companies and vested interests.
But electoral reforms and a revision of the Political Funds Control Law in the mid-1990s greatly improved the transparency of fundraising, weakening the power of the faction leaders considerably.
This in turn strengthened the power of the prime minister, who now relies more on public popularity for national elections instead of factional support for internal party races. This is one of the reasons why the Cabinet’s support rate in media polls is viewed as a critical indicator of Abe’s power.
Asked about the uptick in activity involving the factions, Matsumoto of Aso’s faction said it is still too early for any one faction to discuss specific strategies for the presidential election.
“Nobody knows what will actually happen yet,” Matsumoto said.
“I don’t think they are organizing a meeting with a specific purpose now. But you have to get to know each other first now, preparing for the time when a decisive action will actually take place,” he said.
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