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The Diet may be out of session but a new battle is already underway at Liberal Democratic Party headquarters.

The power struggle has Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Finance Minister Taro Aso and former trade minister Akira Amari standing in one corner and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai in the other. Each side has eyes on the party’s leadership contest before a Lower House election in the fall.

The fight is manifesting itself in a number of recently formed parliamentary groups, with the two sides vying to install as many of their faction members as possible to LDP executive posts, and the position of secretary-general is the top prize.

At least on the surface, the party is united in backing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of the party’s leadership election in September. Approval ratings for his Cabinet and the LDP still hover around the mid-30% range, whereas support for opposition parties is in the single digits. No rival candidates are exploring runs to replace Suga in the leadership contest. But the intraparty fight could leave Suga, who lacks a solid support base despite being the party’s president, in a shaky position — and that could destabilize the LDP and affect the general election.

“The LDP is starting to think its leadership contest is more important than the general election,” said Jun Iio, a professor of Japanese politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

The trio of Abe, Aso and Amari, along with Suga, then-chief Cabinet secretary, were a key platoon during the early stages of the second Abe administration. When Abe resigned last September, Nikai — keen to stay on as secretary-general — filled the void and became the first major faction leader to endorse Suga as Abe’s successor.

Nikai’s swift, calculated move made Suga a front-runner and demonstrated his appetite to further expand his faction’s authority and influence within the party.

That has left Nikai’s 47-member group with an outsized influence in the party and has the two largest factions — Hiroyuki Hosoda’s 96-member faction, of which Abe is a de facto leader, and Aso’s 53-member faction — irritated.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai speaks at a parliamentary group on advancing the
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai speaks at a parliamentary group on advancing the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” next to former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on June 15. | KYODO

The influence held by factions was suppressed when Abe was in charge, with LDP lawmakers almost universally backing him and satisfied that party unity was Abe’s top priority. After his departure, they have been revived to play their role in deciding key party posts and even Cabinet ministers.

Nikai’s camp emerged as the fourth largest within the party, as it actively accepted newcomers to the LDP from opposition parties.

He is also flexible in throwing support behind a wide variety of lawmakers, even those considered dark horses. At one point, he praised former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a vocal critic of Abe, as being “well-versed in policies” and expressed his support for Seiko Noda, who does not belong to a faction, running for the LDP leadership. Nikai appointed her to be a party executive.

The opening bell of the LDP fight was struck on May 21 at a meeting of a parliamentary group focused on semiconductors. The group was set up to advise the Suga administration as it looked to beef up its strategy on economic security.

But the caucus’s lineup — Abe and Aso as senior advisers and Amari as president — promptly raised speculation that they were reuniting in a potential bid to seize leadership of the party. Aso and Amari were close Abe allies during his administration, along with Suga. The tight-knit group was given a nickname stemming from the initials of their family names: “3A + S.”

Roughly 60 LDP lawmakers from the factions of Hosoda, Aso, Wataru Takeshita and Fumio Kishida participated in the meeting, but notably absent was a significant contingent from the Nikai faction.

Legislators often form a coalition on specific issues as part of policymaking and submit a proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office. But a caucus is also an important ingredient in party politics that helps members build a relationship with lawmakers in other factions. It can also test their loyalty to specific executives.

Aso rattled off a joke about the lineup.

“The three of us gathering here signals something is up in terms of a power struggle, so there are lots of newspaper reporters here who seem to have no connection with semiconductors at all,” Aso noted, eliciting laughter from lawmakers in the room. “You will be disappointed.”

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend a meeting of a parliamentary group on semiconductors at the Diet on May 28. | KYODO
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Finance Minister Taro Aso attend a meeting of a parliamentary group on semiconductors at the Diet on May 28. | KYODO

This was not the only time the three heavyweights have gathered in the same place in recent months. They all became advisers to the Japan-Australia Parliamentary Association to facilitate cooperation between the two nations on national security and economic issues amid China’s rise.

Since the Diet session ended, LDP members’ interests have turned to a potential shake-up in the party’s executive lineup, which is expected sometime after the LDP leadership contest or the general election, depending on whichever comes first.

For many, their greatest concern is whether the 82-year-old Nikai — who has been secretary-general since August 2016, the longest run in the post in the party’s history — will keep his title beyond the fall. The secretary-general’s term is one year, but there are no limits on reappointment. The person in the powerful role can decide which candidate to officially endorse in an election and has discretion on party finances and personnel, including the party’s division heads and deputy heads.

When Abe decided to step down for health reasons in September last year, Suga, who was considering a run to be the party’s next leader, first turned to Nikai for support.

Suga and Nikai, who both started as local assembly members, developed a close bond during the Abe administration. In return for his support, Suga kept Nikai on as secretary-general.

Under the Suga administration, Nikai’s faction members secured the crucial posts of internal affairs minister as well as another Cabinet position, a satisfactory result for Nikai.

Former trade minister Akira Amari (left) attends a meeting of a parliamentary group on semiconductors, with Motoo Hayashi, an executive acting secretary-general, at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on June 15. | KYODO
Former trade minister Akira Amari (left) attends a meeting of a parliamentary group on semiconductors, with Motoo Hayashi, an executive acting secretary-general, at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters on June 15. | KYODO

Aso, who delayed throwing his support behind Suga last September, is seeking to rally his troops. The finance minister is rumored to be seeking to push Amari, a member of his faction, as Nikai’s replacement in the next reshuffle.

Wary of being driven into a corner, Nikai has attempted to drive a wedge into the 3A alliance. The secretary-general asked Abe to be a senior adviser of a parliamentary group that he had established aimed at advancing the country’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.” Because the strategy was originally pushed by Abe, the former prime minister had no choice but to accept the offer.

In response, Amari openly criticized Nikai for founding the parliamentary group, especially because the secretary-general is known for his close ties to China.

“I wonder whether it’d be OK for Mr. Nikai to preside over the group on the strategy that touches the sorest spot for China,” Amari said during a TBS program aired on June 11.

Nikai and Amari had clashed openly before over a vote-buying scandal involving former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife, former Upper House lawmaker Anri Kawai. While Nikai denied knowledge of or participation in the distribution of ¥150 million in party funds to Anri Kawai in 2019, Motoo Hayashi, an executive acting secretary-general and Nikai’s top aide, implied during a news conference on May 17 that Amari was in charge.

Amari, who was an election strategy committee chairman, shot back by saying, “I was not involved even a micrometer.”

In response, Nikai modified his response and said the party’s president and the secretary-general at that time were responsible for party decisions, dragging Abe into the controversy once again.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during a news conference in May in Tokyo | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga during a news conference in May in Tokyo | POOL / VIA REUTERS

What is concerning for the LDP is that powerful skirmishes could damage the party as a whole. When Abe was prime minister, he was particularly mindful of party unity, wrote Koji Nakakita, a Japanese politics professor at Hitotsubashi University, in his book on the LDP.

Abe was not hesitant to pick rivals such as Ishiba and former Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki to fill the secretary-general role and tap leading figures of individual factions to Cabinet posts, thereby maintaining solidarity and high intraparty support. Election victories and high approval ratings also spurred him on.

The rationale for boosting rivals, Nakakita explained in the book, was rooted in a conviction that disarray within the party in 2009, in which LDP lawmakers had pressed Aso to step down as prime minister, caused the party to lose power.

Learning from that mistake, the LDP is united in backing Suga ahead of the general election. However, unlike Abe, Suga has neither a track record of winning national elections — the LDP has lost three by-elections so far this year — nor a strong faction that serves as a reliable support base, a crucial component to surviving an uphill battle in party politics.

Ishiba, who ran against Suga last year, cast doubt on whether the power struggle was worth it for anyone but the contestants.

“I don’t reject the power struggle itself,” Ishiba said during a TV Asahi program appearance on Wednesday. “What matters is for what purpose does one seek to acquire power? If people are competing for job posts while that objective is not clear, I wonder whether that serves the country’s best interest.”

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