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Ruling Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights such as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have launched a new Diet group, in a move regarded by many as aiming to keep check on the growing presence of LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai ahead of the upcoming party leadership election.

Abe, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Akira Amari, chairman of the party’s Tax System Research Commission, launched the new group at a meeting on Friday.

The move is seen as countering the rise of Nikai, a strong backer of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The meeting was attended by some 60 members, including prominent names such as former LDP Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga and former party policy chief Fumio Kishida.

Missing from the unprecedented gathering of heads from numerous party factions were officials from the Nikai faction.

“Although we may look like we are playing politics, we certainly came to talk about semiconductors,” Aso said at the start of the meeting, referring to the group’s stated goal to revitalize Japan’s semiconductor industry.

However, very few in the party are taking Aso’s words at face value.

“They are looking to show off their cooperation, which has remained unchanged since the Abe administration,” a source in the party faction led by Aso said. “This is a sign of conflict approaching.”

The Aso faction, which counts Amari among its ranks, discussed the formation of the Diet group at a faction meeting Thursday.

Members of other factions are also starting to suspect that the heavyweights are creating political drama.

Aso and others are deeply dissatisfied with Nikai’s grip on party management, achieved through his relationship of trust with Suga.

The founding of the new group comes as party members begin to call for Nikai to step down, in light of him having already become the longest-serving party secretary-general and with him set to have remained in the post for five years in August this year.

Nikai faction officials have remained calm over the developments, saying they are uninterested in the Diet group.

However, a faction veteran said that the move “looks like a political game,” suggesting that Nikai is not happy about it.

Nikai and Amari are currently playing a blame game over the party’s use of ¥150 million to back a candidate since embroiled in a major vote-buying scandal.

“The accountability lies with party headquarters,” said Hiroshige Seko, LDP secretary-general in the House of Councillors and close to Abe, at a news conference Friday. “The secretary-general bears responsibility for party headquarters.”

Some worry that the new Diet group may spark infighting ahead of the House of Representatives election that must be held by autumn, an LDP leadership election in September and the selection of party executives, as well as Cabinet members.

“Such tactics are not good” amid a COVID-19 state of emergency and ahead of the elections, a former Cabinet minister said.

“An intraparty political crisis now would result in a loss at the Lower House election,” warned an Upper House member of the faction led by LDP heavyweight Wataru Takeshita.

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