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Fourth in a series of six

While it has been the prime ministerial hopefuls garnering most of the attention lately, there are two behind-the-scenes players who have the power to shape Japan’s political future: former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. Between their ability to guarantee votes and shape perceptions inside the Liberal Democratic Party and out, these two party heavyweights can make the difference in who comes out on top in the coming weeks.

The influence the two men yield has already been demonstrated in the toppling of Yoshihide Suga. When the LDP announced the date for the presidential election on Aug. 26, the situation would have been entirely different if Abe and Aso had vociferously backed Suga. Instead, all that they did was quietly allude to their support based on the need for continuity through the Lower House election. The absence of enthusiastic endorsement from those two rattled other would-be backers which, in conjunction with Suga’s inability to calm the situation, led to a complete withdrawal of support from the party.

Now that the race has opened up, Abe and Aso still stand to impact the outcome of the upcoming presidential election greater than any other non-candidates inside the party, albeit in different ways and toward different ends.

Shinzo Abe

Anyone who has been paying attention to Japanese politics for the past decade knows who Abe is and the sort of influence he wields. After all, before abruptly resigning last year, he had secured his record as Japan’s longest serving prime minister. During that time, Abe was the face for the Japanese government at home and abroad. His name recognition alone lends weight to his announcements that can dominate the media space — in turn shaping both party and public perceptions.

Although not a faction head himself, Abe maintains influence over the Hiroyuki Hosoda and Wataru Takeshita factions, the LDP’s first and third largest groups. He also still carries weight with individual lawmakers having served as prime minister for the better part of the last decade.

Abe will use his informal power to achieve his two fundamental goals: to maintain his influence inside the government and to advance his legacy. He cannot do that unless he has an ally or loyalist in the seat of power. Of course, his preference is to have someone who is closely aligned with him, and it helps if that person owes him something.

This is why we have seen Abe come out in support of Sanae Takaichi. Takaichi has been an Abe-loyalist for the better part of two decades and earned multiple appointments within his Cabinet. Endorsing her for prime minister supports Abe’s fundamental interests.

When Takaichi suggested that she would run, most observers wrote her off because she was unlikely to garner the twenty nominations needed to enter, let alone the hundreds of votes she would need to win.

Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, both former prime ministers, hold an enviable level of sway behind the scenes of the Liberal Democratic Party. | KYODO
Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, both former prime ministers, hold an enviable level of sway behind the scenes of the Liberal Democratic Party. | KYODO

Enter Shinzo Abe, who could potentially deliver her all 96 votes from his home Hosoda faction as well as at least some from the Takeshita faction. That would immediately make Takaichi the frontrunner among parliamentary voters, and if she somehow wins, she would owe it all to Abe. That debt would be something Abe could exploit to maintain his influence for as long as she is in office.

There is also the legacy consideration. Abe has long groomed a cast of right-wing female politicians to represent his ideal for “a Japanese society in which women shine.” Those include the likes of former members of his Cabinet, Tomomi Inada, Haruka Arimura, Eriko Yamatani and, of course, Sanae Takaichi. If Abe could elevate Takaichi to the prime minister’s office, he could add one more legacy achievement to his record, having engineered the accession of the first female prime minister in Japanese history.

Endorsing Takaichi also allows Abe to avoid his nightmare scenario: seeing administrative reform minister and vaccine czar Taro Kono win the race. There is little love lost between Abe and Kono, and Abe knows that he will lose influence with Kono atop the government. Abe probably suspects that Kono can beat Kishida in a head-to-head presidential election, but by endorsing Takaichi, he adds another competitor to the mix. That shake-up could steal some backers from Kono and give Abe a little more control over what happens in the party presidential election.

Taro Aso

Taro Aso is a standout political figure in his own right. Grandson of famed postwar Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, Aso himself led the country for about a year from 2008 to 2009.

Aso is also known for his abrasive personality, questionable policy positions and frequent gaffes.

Despite his many shortcomings, what Aso does bring to the LDP is pedigree and money. Aso comes from a political dynasty and happens to be the richest member of the entire legislature (how his family was able to secure so much money on politicians’ salaries is another subject altogether). Aso has served as the finance minister and deputy prime minister since 2012, and he leads the party’s second-largest faction.

Aso knows that he has no chance of returning to the premiership after his failed first attempt, but he has enjoyed serving as deputy prime minister and holding firm as the head of the Japanese government’s most powerful ministry (after all, the finance ministry holds the purse strings). He will not really care who is prime minister as long as he can maintain his mini-empire within the government.

The question, which candidate will allow him to do that?

In theory, the choice for Aso should be simple: Taro Kono is a member of his faction, is popular among the public, and has a good shot at winning the race if he gets all of the Aso faction members on board with him. In practice, what concerns Aso is what happens if Kono actually takes office.

Aso represents old guard LDP politics and wants to preserve the system that has enabled him to wield influence for so many years. Meanwhile, Kono is a champion for reform. Those two things are incompatible. Adding to the trouble for Aso is that his faction used to belong to Taro Kono’s father, Yohei Kono. If Kono becomes prime minister, it would not take much for him to sideline the aging and gaffe-prone Aso. If Aso backs Kono, he might be signing his own death warrant.

Abe’s choice to back Takaichi opens up some options. Aso could theoretically endorse Kono without having to worry about him actually winning; that is, if Abe can deliver enough votes to Takaichi or split the vote enough for Kishida to win.

Aso could choose to endorse another candidate, not outright rejecting Kono but asking him as a member of the faction to fall in line and wait a few more years for his turn.

The last choice is to cut a deal with Kono, guaranteeing his support in exchange for being able to retain at least the position of finance minister.

In the end, the 80-year old Aso would prefer for Kono to wait until he is done in politics before making a run, but the maverick politician has made himself the central issue for Aso in this presidential race.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

Read more of “The LDP’s game of thrones” series.

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