Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is now well established in his post, but the implications of his elevation to leader of the country continue to shake out within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Last Thursday, LDP veteran and former Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba announced he would step down as the leader of his faction, the Suigetsukai. The 19-member group is one of the smallest of the LDP’s seven factions and Ishiba’s resignation raises questions about its future.

Those concerns deepened Monday after the faction gave up on choosing a successor. Ishiba had originally hoped that former Environment Minister Ichiro Kamoshita would assume the post, but he declined.

Ishiba’s decision comes as former Foreign Minister and policy chief Fumio Kishida and his 47-member Kochikai step up efforts to merge with other factions before the next Lower House election is called or, at the latest, by next autumn’s LDP presidential election.

The main reason for these moves is that Ishiba and Kishida were the losing candidates in last month’s LDP presidential election, which was won by Suga.

While both men had the backing of their respective factions, Suga was supported by four powerful groups. These included the 98-member Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, head of the Lower House constitutional review board. Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s 54-member faction, the Shikokai, and former General Council Chair Wataru Takeshita’s 54-member faction, the Heisei Kenkyukai, were also behind him. But Suga’s biggest supporter was powerful Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and his 47-member Shisuikai.

Ishiba — a longtime rival of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who comes from the Hosoda faction and had been backed by the Aso and Nikai factions — lost for the fourth time. Ishiba faction members failed to secure top party posts or prominent Cabinet positions under Suga, and questions within the faction were growing about his leadership, as his criticism of Abe had increasingly isolated him and his followers from the other factions.

The future of the Ishiba faction remains uncertain, as does whether Ishiba himself will continue to remain under someone else’s eventual leadership or leave the group.

For Kishida, who has long been touted as a future prime minister, September’s loss prompted him to re-evaluate criticism about his communication style and the positions of himself and his faction within the party. His members were mostly shut out from the Cabinet and, unlike Ishiba, public opinion polls had long shown he was not that popular among voters.

A new Kishida strategy

Kishida is now focused on two fundamental strategies in order to win the necessary public and interparty support for his ambition to become prime minister. The first is improving his personal communication skills, which have long been criticized by other party members, and raising his profile around the country among local LDP supporters. He has been traveling around Japan promoting recent books that outline his political vision, which emphasizes regional revitalization, the environment — including expanding renewable energy sources — and eliminating nuclear weapons, among other issues.

He has also formed three study groups. One looks at responses to the coronavirus, another studies ways of expanding renewable energy and includes other LDP faction members. A third, with executive acting secretary-general Seiko Noda in charge, is looking at how to reduce costs related to giving birth.

Kishida’s second strategy is a renewed effort to push for a merger with the Aso faction and the 23-member Yurinkai, led by former LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki. Both factions were once part of Kochikai, and Kishida hopes to convince both Aso and Tanigaki to merge, which would make the Kochikai the largest LDP faction even before the possible admission of any members from Ishiba’s faction.

Yet past efforts by Kishida to convince Aso and his faction to rejoin have been rejected due to longstanding animosities between Aso and honorary Kochikai Chairman Makoto Koga, who retired from politics in 2012 after a long career that included a stint as secretary-general. Like Aso, Koga is from Fukuoka Prefecture, but the two were rivals for power. Aso has reportedly said that as long as Kishida keeps Koga as honorary chairman, any merger would be difficult.

After Aso rejected Kishida’s request to support him in the LDP presidential election due to Koga’s presence, the 80-year-old Koga indicated he was willing to resign as honorary chair. That seemingly clears one of the main hurdles to an Aso-Kishida merger. However, there are several other problems.

First, Kishida faction members loyal to Koga might decide to leave if Aso and his faction members are brought into Kochikai.

Second, Taro Kono, the administrative reform minister, is a member of Aso’s faction. Aso has indicated he wants Kono to succeed Suga as prime minister.

Third, some Kishida faction members worry Kono could overshadow Kishida after any merger, and that Aso’s influence would mean a leadership fight between Kishida and Aso. If Aso demands the faction back Kono instead of Kishida for the next LDP president, that could lead to a split with Kishida loyalists.

For the moment, the tensions in the Ishiba and Kishida factions appear to be having no effect on the other LDP factions or the Suga government. With the prospect of a snap general election by the end of the year appearing less likely than it was a few weeks ago, the Ishiba and Kishida factions may have more time to reorganize themselves, although whether their efforts to maintain or expand their current factions will succeed remains to be seen.

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