OSAKA – On April 22, 81-year-old Toshihiro Nikai, the 12-term Liberal Democratic Party Lower House member from Wakayama Prefecture, marked 1,359 days as party secretary-general. He is now the second-longest serving person in that position in the 65-year history of the LDP, following Kakuei Tanaka, a former prime minister. If he is still in the post come September, he’ll be the longest-serving.
LDP’s secretary-general is de facto the most powerful person within the LDP after the president, who doubles as prime minister when the LDP is a ruling party. Since the party’s founding in 1955, 12 men who held the post have become prime minister. Here’s a look at the office and some of those who served in it.
What is the role of the LDP secretary-general?
Along with the LDP general council chairman (currently Shunichi Suzuki), the policy research council chair (Fumio Kishida) and the election strategy committee chair (Hakubun Shimomura), the secretary-general runs the party.
Under the LDP’s constitution, the secretary-general is appointed by the party president (Shinzo Abe) and must receive approval from the LDP General Council. That body consists of 25 LDP Diet members.
The job of the secretary-general is to assist the president in carrying out party affairs. There are four bureaus under the secretary-general, including the Personnel, Treasury, Information Research and International bureaus. The first two are particularly important, as they involve intraparty promotions and funding for party activities.
In the past, when LDP headquarters was more powerful than today, an LDP secretary-general was a power broker who controlled which candidates would run for election and had a lot of say in how much money each might receive from the party. The strongest secretaries-general could thus determine, and even force the resignation of, the prime minister.
For example, then-LDP Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa backed Toshiki Kaifu, who served as prime minister between 1989 and 1991. Hiromu Nonaka, as LDP Secretary-General, backed Yoshiro Mori (who would lead the efforts to bring the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics to Japan). Though the secretaries-general chose the prime ministers, they did so with the support of the different LDP factions, and then interfered in the prime minister’s decisions on Cabinet members and policy.
Neither Kaifu nor Mori enjoyed much popularity during their terms as prime minister, with Kaifu being called “Prime Minister ‘Tofu’” (a play on the first and last syllables of his given and family names for his supposedly soft, tofu-like personality). Mori, who took office in April 2000 after Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi collapsed from a stroke, lasted only one year, with one poll in the Asahi Shimbun showing a 9 percent support rate in February 2001, two months before he resigned.
What happened to the role of the secretary-general after Mori left?
Mori was succeeded by Junichiro Koizumi, an outspoken party outsider from Kanagawa Prefecture. Koizumi was often at odds with the party’s traditional rural base and had never held a top LDP post before. But he was extremely popular with the public, as he vowed to carry out a host of structural reforms.
Koizumi appointed Shinzo Abe to the secretary-general post in September 2003. It was a surprise to many party members and political observers — Abe, unlike his predecessors, had never held a Cabinet position or a top party post. He had won Koizumi’s trust by, among other things, acting as a key leader in pushing for the return of Japanese nationals who had been abducted to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. Abe helped arrange for Koizumi’s September 2002 visit to North Korea and return to Japan with five of them.
Abe would resign as secretary-general in September 2004 to take responsibility for the LDP’s losses in the July Upper House election. He was replaced by Tsutomu Takebe, who became known as “The Great ‘Yes Man.’”
Koizumi wanted to privatize the postal system but faced stiff opposition from members of his own party. In what was essentially a public referendum on the issue, Koizumi called a snap election in September 2005, and Takebe, as secretary-general and at Koizumi’s behest, told LDP members opposed to privatization they would not receive official party endorsement in the election, and would even run candidates against them.
The end result was that Koizumi supporters won enough seats to get the postal privatization bills passed afterwards. But the independence of the secretary-general position in relation to the prime minister’s had been weakened.
With Nikai serving so long, what’s the current power balance between the secretary-general and the LDP president?
Following a number of weak secretaries-general, Nikai was appointed to the post in August 2016, replacing Sadakazu Tanigaki, who stepped down due to injuries from a bicycle accident. Nikai was considered an Abe loyalist, whereas Abe and Tanigaki sometimes clashed on policy measures, especially on the postponement of a consumption tax hike, which Tanigaki opposed.
But Abe tried to get rid of Nikai in the Cabinet reshuffle last September. He wanted to appoint Fumio Kishida to the post, to give him a stepping stone to the Prime Ministers’ Office.
Nikai, however, refused to step down, and Abe backed off. While not a “yes man” like Takebe, with his record of securing solid LDP wins in parliamentary elections and his strong support for Abe, including allowing LDP election rules to change so that Abe could serve a successive three-year term as party president, Nikai is a powerful party leader and loyal Abe ally. He has even suggested he would use his post to rewrite the rules again, to allow Abe to serve another term when the current one ends in September 2021.
However, Nikai has received criticism from other party members for allowing opposition lawmakers such as former Democratic Party of Japan senior member Goshi Hosono into the party. Nikai has already clashed with Kishida in particular over the selection of candidates, including Hosono.
But his long tenure, loyalty to the Abe administration and power over the party purse strings means the odds are good he’ll still be in the post on Sept. 8, when he’ll set the record as the longest-serving secretary-general in party history.