Liberal Democratic Party leadership races are typically predictable affairs, as party factions usually get their members to fall in line in endorsing a specific candidate. Oftentimes, the outcome is mostly known ahead of time.

Not this year.

Unlike last year, when a majority of the party’s prominent factions swiftly banded together to back Yoshihide Suga, most factions are divided over who to support.

Notably, the divide runs deep within factions, with junior lawmakers becoming increasingly vocal about choosing who to back rather than being swayed by their faction leaders.

Lawmakers with fewer terms under their belts lack the solid local support bases enjoyed by their more senior colleagues and, rather than worrying about party politics, are likely to place a premium on backing a candidate that will help them win re-election in the autumn Lower House election.

Faction leaders, afraid of losing members that could affect their standing in the intraparty power struggle, are reluctant to clamp down and force junior lawmakers to toe the faction line.

Another factor this year is that rank-and-file members will have an equal amount of power as lawmakers — with both groups having 383 votes each — casting further doubt on the outcome of the leadership election.

“I expect debates (among candidates) will have some degree of effect in voting behavior among lawmakers and rank-and-file members,” an executive with the Wataru Takeshita faction, the party’s third-largest in terms of membership, said this week. “We’re not putting pressure on members in the first place.

Faction influence

Historically, the LDP’s factions have served as a forum for like-minded lawmakers to deepen cooperation on policy items and campaign for its members in party presidential races. The power of factions has greatly diminished over the past 30 years due to a series of scandals that prompted political reform. Instead of factions, it’s now the party leadership that holds most of the power when it comes to deciding which candidates to field in districts and where to allocate party funds.

Suga does not belong to a faction and has advocated for the party to abandon old-school, faction-based politics. But when he won last year’s presidential election and picked the party’s new executive lineup, he quickly realized that factions still play a key role and that he needed them to reinforce his standing within the party.

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down last year, Suga first turned to Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai for support in the LDP leadership vote. Nikai’s faction, seemingly looking to gain an advantage by betting on the front-runner ahead of other factions, was the first to announce it would endorse Suga.

After winning the vote, Suga kept Nikai on as secretary-general.

Mirroring his 2020 move, Nikai had attempted to seize the initiative by announcing his faction would back the prime minister again this year.

“The LDP presidential race is a power struggle,” a senior administration official said on Aug. 3. “I don’t know what is going to happen (even) one month from now.”

Exactly a month later, Suga stunned the nation by announcing he would not seek re-election as the party’s president, effectively ending his time as prime minister when his party leadership term ends in late September.

A complicated picture

Since Suga quit the race, multiple candidates have expressed an interest in running, including Taro Kono, the minister chosen by Suga to lead the country’s vaccine rollout.

Candidates are hoping to count on their faction’s blessing for an edge in what will likely be a highly competitive race.

In reality, it’s not that simple.

Take the Hiroyuki Hosoda faction, which has Abe as its de factor leader and boasts 96 members. Former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi has already secured an endorsement from Abe, who alongside Finance Minister Taro Aso wields tremendous influence in intraparty politics. Building on that momentum, she has attracted support from the more conservative and hawkish wing of the party.

However, Takaichi doesn’t belong to a faction after having seceded from the predecessor of the Hosoda faction. Although she has Abe in her corner, members of the Hosoda faction are not necessarily willing to go along with the former prime minister’s pick.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture on Sep. 3. | KYODO
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture on Sep. 3. | KYODO

In multiple public opinion polls this week, Takaichi only garnered single-digit support, raising questions about whether her conservative philosophy would be appealing to the broader public in the upcoming general election.

The second-largest faction is headed by Aso and is composed of 53 members, including Kono.

In Kono’s case, despite his popularity in public opinion polls, some members of the Aso faction have been reluctant to endorse him enthusiastically.

Some veteran lawmakers close to the finance minister have been turned off by Kono’s past positions, including his stance that Japan should reduce its reliance on nuclear power and allow a reigning empress or an emperor from the maternal line of the imperial family. Akira Amari, a former trade minister, indicated earlier this week he may throw his support behind former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

In an effort to woo skeptics, Kono dialed back on those points of contention Wednesday when speaking to reporters.

Aso had reportedly been worried that Kono might become another short-term leader, which would weaken the Aso faction’s standing within the party. Media reports say the finance minister finally gave Kono his blessing Thursday.

The faction led by Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who is still unsure whether he will run for LDP chief, has 17 members. His faction is also divided over whether to back him if he does run, with some members already announcing their support for Kono. Despite being among the public’s favorite choices in polls, it is uncertain whether he can get an endorsement from 20 lawmakers, a prerequisite to join the race.

The faction led by Nikai, whom Suga was going to replace as secretary-general in an apparent last-gasp effort to hang onto power, has 47 members, while former Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara presides over a 10-member caucus.

Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO
Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba speaks to reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday. | KYODO

Neither the Nikai or Ishihara factions, which had previously committed to endorsing Suga, have decided who to back.

Nikai, particularly keen to maintain his influence in the party, is believed to be carefully examining each candidate’s prospect of ultimately emerging as the victor. Also under consideration is the potential for a run-off vote if no candidate secures a majority on Sept. 29.

Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi serves as a temporary leader of the Takeshita faction and its 52 members. Motegi told reporters Thursday that he would not be participating in the race, meaning votes from that faction are up for grabs.

Kishida leads a 46-member faction and so far only his faction is united in standing behind its leader in the election. Kishida could also attract votes from Hosoda and Aso faction members who decline to back Takaichi or Kono.

Junior lawmakers may hold the key

One of the possible keys to predicting the contest’s outcome is how lawmakers with fewer terms would vote to choose the party’s next leader.

Of 276 LDP lawmakers in the Lower House, 126 people, or around 46%, have won past elections three times or less and many could be vulnerable in the fall election.

Eighty-four lawmakers won election to the Lower House for the first time in 2012, when the LDP retook power from the Democratic Party of Japan and Abe was installed as prime minister for the second time. Capitalizing on Abe’s lasting popularity, most of those lawmakers easily won re-election in 2014 and 2017 and have never experienced an uphill election battle.

Younger politicians are more susceptible to following public opinion rather than getting involved in an intraparty power struggle since their No. 1 priority is keeping their seats. With that in mind, Kishida and Kono will be looking for ways to win that group over and if Ishiba were to run, his campaign team would hope to receive a boost from junior lawmakers.

On Tuesday, roughly 70 junior LDP lawmakers held a meeting and argued in favor of allowing each LDP member to choose the party’s leader of their own free will instead of being compelled to adhere to the decision of their faction leaders.

“Politics belongs to people, and we, young and mid-level members need to speak up to make sure the LDP achieves its goal,” said Tatsuo Fukuda, a three-term lawmaker in the Lower House, at the meeting.

Another important factor is how the 383 votes from rank-and-file members will be distributed. In last year’s leadership election, the party simplified the procedure for rank-and-file members following Abe’s abrupt decision to resign, counting only 141 votes from the party’s prefectural representatives.

In a Kyodo News poll released last Sunday, 37.1% of LDP supporters picked Kono, while 23.3% selected Ishiba and 20.7% opted for Kishida. Those three candidates are anticipated to get a boost in a total tally from rank-and-file members. If Ishiba decides not to run, Kono will be eager to win over nonlawmaker votes that would have gone to Ishiba.

“The rank-and-file members … as well as the public will not be satisfied if we follow whoever factions decide to back in the leadership race,” said three-term LDP lawmaker Takashi Yamashita, who participated in Tuesday’s meeting.

LDP faction strength

  • The Hosoda faction (96): Led by Hiroyuki Hosoda but the de facto leader is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
  • The Aso faction (53): Led by Finance Minister Taro Aso
  • The Takeshita faction (52): Led by Wataru Takeshita. Members include Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi
  • The Nikai faction (47): Led by Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai
  • The Kishida faction (46): Led by former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Faction members are backing Kishida’s candidacy.
  • The Ishiba faction (17): Led by former defense chief Shigeru Ishiba
  • The Ishihara faction (10): Led by Nobuteru Ishihara
  • Unaffiliated (62): LDP lawmakers who don’t belong to any faction

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