OSAKA – Almost a year since he resigned as leader due to health reasons, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is back on the political stage, albeit behind the scenes — a development that has coincided with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s tumbling poll numbers and the Liberal Democratic Party’s looming presidential election, which is likely to be held at the end of September.
In September last year, Suga became prime minister with the support of the erstwhile leader and the LDP’s Hosoda faction, of which Abe was a member, as well as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and his group. Without the backing of Abe in particular, it’s unlikely Suga, who belongs to no faction and was Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary, could have garnered enough votes to win the LDP presidency and thus the prime ministership.
Over the past few months, the former prime minister has aligned himself with Aso and Akira Amari, who served as trade minister during Abe’s first term from 2006 to 2007 and then as his economic revitalization minister when Abe returned to power in 2012. The “3As” — as Abe, Aso and Amari have been dubbed — have long been close personally and ideologically. They are now in a battle for control of the party with Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, who assumed his post in August 2016 and has held it for the longest time on record.
While Abe and Aso agreed last year to support Nikai’s move to make Suga prime minister, this autumn will see not only the LDP presidential election but also a general election. As the party prepares for both, friction between the desires of Abe and his allies and those of Nikai are bubbling to the surface as the former leader attempts to play kingmaker.
This, in turn, has fostered a debate about whether Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, is seeking a return to formal power or whether he might be content with remaining a shadow shogun behind the scenes.
“I think there’s no doubt that Abe hopes to be at center stage politically again,” said veteran political commentator Tetsuo Suzuki. “He won’t say that he wants to return as prime minister. But it’s possible that, as the Suga administration’s popularity continues to fall, there may be louder calls from among conservative and right-wing LDP members for Abe to once again run for the LDP presidency.”
There are also some within the party suggesting that Abe would make a powerful foreign minister, Suzuki added.
Political journalist and author Akiko Azumi feels Abe’s road back to power is going to first come through membership of the party’s Hosoda faction. Formerly known as the Seiwa-kai, the 96-member group is the largest of the LDP’s seven factions. Once led by Abe’s father, the late Shintaro Abe, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda is the current leader.
“It is a given that Abe will take over the Hosoda faction and become its next leader,” Azumi said. “There are some who believe he is aiming for a third term — that will be difficult, as he has resigned twice (in 2007 and then in 2020) due to health reasons.
“He is also losing to Shigeru Ishiba, Taro Kono and Shinjiro Koizumi in media polls on the preferred candidate for the next prime minister.”
So far, Abe has publicly said he supports Suga’s re-election as LDP president. But the party is worried about Suga’s declining popularity and what impact it could have on the general election, especially as any prime minister would be expected to serve as the face of the party and help its candidates campaign in a general election.
Earlier this month, Sanae Takaichi, Abe’s former internal affairs minister, who doesn’t belong to any faction, made a surprise announcement in the magazine Bungeishunju that she wanted to stand in the presidential election. Takaichi and Abe are old allies, and Azumi suggests her campaign is being stage-managed by Abe in his quest to play kingmaker.
“The editor-in-chief of the magazine is very close to Abe. I think it’s Abe who is writing the script (of Takaichi’s candidacy),” she said.
Suzuki, however, notes that Abe has not formally endorsed Takaichi and had once hoped that another female politician he is close to, his former Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, would succeed him as prime minister. Inada has made no secret of her ambitions and Abe has been supporting her various policy initiatives.
In April, Abe became an adviser to an LDP group chaired by Inada pushing for the replacement of the nation’s aging nuclear power plants — Inada represents Fukui Prefecture, home to 15 nuclear reactors including those being decommissioned. While she and Takaichi are in basic agreement on the need for nuclear power, they are political rivals.
“Inada has recently taken a more liberal line on issues such as LGBT rights, which angered many of her fellow conservatives,” Suzuki said. “Many of those angry with Inada are encouraged by Takaichi’s decision to run. In fact, Takaichi and Inada are both seeking Abe’s attention and approval.”
Takaichi will need Abe’s support if she is to find the 20 endorsements among party lawmakers needed to stand for election. Even if she gets the minimum number of signatures and has Abe’s backing, she faces long odds of winning the LDP presidency because of her lack of public popularity.
“Her name has never been mentioned in any previous polls on who people would prefer as prime minister, although one recent survey put her popularity at 1%,” Azumi said. “I don’t think she can increase this number and become the face of the LDP in time for the Lower House election, which will be held by November.”
A NNN TV-Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted between Aug. 7 and 9 asking voters who they prefer as the next prime minister found that long-time Abe rival and former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba was the top choice, backed by 19% of respondents. Abe himself was the choice of 10%, while Inada was not on the list.
Abe could also play kingmaker for another LDP politician who has long coveted the prime minister’s office: former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who ran and lost to Suga in last September’s LDP presidential election. Abe had said in the past he would support Kishida, even though on foreign policy issues Kishida has long been considered a dove and Abe a hawk. He also remains unpopular with the public, and only 4% of those in the NNN-Yomiuri poll wanted him to be the next prime minister.
But, Azumi says, Takaichi would be unable to unite the party, while Kishida has always been the type of politician to rely on others. As a result, Abe would prefer to have the latter elected as LDP president and prime minister, as he would be more easily influenced.
“From Abe’s point of view, his successor should have been Fumio Kishida, not Suga. But Nikai, who wanted to remain secretary-general, made the first move (by backing Suga) and all else followed,” Azumi said. “So Abe reluctantly announced his support for Suga, but only for the remainder of his term as LDP president, which ends next month.
“If Suga wins the presidential election, he’ll be completely outside Abe’s control. Before that happens, Abe’s goal is to have a new LDP president who will be under his control and continue to be his puppet.”
Abe and the Hosoda faction are also seeking to influence LDP candidates for the general election, and they have found themselves clashing with the party’s current kingmaker Nikai in Gunma and Niigata prefectures, where Abe’s preferred candidate is different from the LDP secretary-general’s. With his position, Nikai has control over the party’s personnel appointments and its finances — a position that Abe and his friends are now eyeing.
The 3As want Amari to become secretary-general, but in order to make that happen, they need to break the Nikai-Suga line, Azumi says. Suzuki notes that if the LDP fails to do well in the general election, Suga will be forced to replace Nikai.
Much of the intraparty struggle is over whose preferred candidates should get official party endorsements, which would make them loyal to their political benefactors if they win in a general election. But the LDP presidential election could be the real determining factor in determining Japan’s political future.
“In the next presidential election, it’s not about choosing a ‘king,’ i.e., a prime minister,” Suzuki said. “Rather, it’s about deciding who the next LDP kingmaker will be, and whether it will be Abe, his close ally Aso or Nikai.”
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