With the Liberal Democratic Party's leadership campaign officially starting Friday, the race is turning out to be more than just an election to choose the country’s next leader — it's become a contest that could shift power dynamics within the ruling party and shape the LDP for years to come.

Unlike past party votes, it's also anyone's guess as to who will win, and the picture grew murkier Thursday as former internal affairs minister Seiko Noda announced a last-minute bid of her own.

Traditionally, LDP faction leaders get their followers to agree to endorse a specific candidate, leaving little doubt over the result ahead of the election. This year, however, all but one of the intraparty groups will allow their members to vote for any candidate, in an effort to avoid lawmakers quitting if they don't get to pick their preferred candidate.

A case in point: Although Finance Minister Taro Aso gave his blessing for vaccine chief Taro Kono — a member of Aso's faction — to run for leadership, some of his faction’s veteran members are expected to champion former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida instead.

Influential lawmakers have come forward to endorse different candidates. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the de facto leader of the Hosoda faction, which is the LDP's largest, threw his weight behind former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi, compelling more conservative and hawkish members of the party to align themselves with her.

Many junior lawmakers as well as notable names such as former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, a rare outspoken critic of Abe, and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who does not belong to a faction but is close with the vaccine chief as they both represent districts in Kanagawa, have gotten behind Kono. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is also presumed to be backing Kono after giving him the critical vaccine and digitalization portfolios during his administration.

That clouded picture means this year’s leadership election could unleash a seismic shift within the party that disrupts a status quo defined by old-school faction-based politics, in which veteran heavyweights have the final say.

“What lies at the foundation (of the race) is a power struggle,” one lawmaker affiliated with the LDP’s Takeshita faction, the third-largest group, said last week on condition of anonymity.

Unusually this election, the only faction united behind a single candidate is the one run by Kishida.

At the heart of this break with tradition are junior lawmakers, or those who have won three general elections or fewer.

Those less experienced lawmakers — who comprise 46% of all LDP Lower House members and have previously capitalized on Abe’s popularity to secure re-election — are feeling vulnerable ahead of the autumn general election, and faction leaders feared they could revolt and leave the intraparty groups if executives forced them to support a specific candidate. Junior lawmakers have formed a roughly 90-member caucus and have vocally insisted that they be given their own choice in the LDP election instead of being forced to adhere to their faction leader's selection.

Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, at his office in Tokyo on Sept. 3. | BLOOMBERG
Fumio Kishida, a former foreign minister, at his office in Tokyo on Sept. 3. | BLOOMBERG

“I get worried when I look at them,” one mid-level LDP lawmaker recently lamented. “It’s reminiscent of the time when many lawmakers pressured Aso to step down as party leader (in 2009),” adding that such a move could cause intraparty friction and hurt the party ahead of the general election. The LDP was thrown from government in the 2009 Lower House vote.

“Whether you win or lose an election, it’s your responsibility” and not because of the party leader, the lawmaker said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

That fear of disunity within intraparty groups has prompted faction leaders to come up with solutions to appease their members.

The Hosoda faction decided Tuesday to let their members vote freely but officially recommended Kishida and Takaichi. Some of the members have already expressed their support for Kono, but the executives are not planning to penalize anyone who votes for the vaccine chief. Still, the faction’s decision to exclude Kono, who has been advocating for gradually phasing out nuclear energy and opposed building additional power plants, underscores its skepticism toward him.

“Taking that into account, the faction came up with multiple candidates to support as a whole and identified (those) whose philosophies would align with our faction,” said one LDP lawmaker who has direct knowledge of the Hosoda group’s decision, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the comments.

Hawkish Hosoda members have coalesced around Takaichi, who has found support for her pledge to boost the nation’s defense to counter China, amend the Constitution and continue visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by critics as a symbol of Japan's past militarism. The more conservative members anticipate Takaichi would continue where Abe, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, left off.

In a similar vein, the Aso faction, the party’s second-largest, will officially endorse faction member Kono and Kishida but will let its members vote freely. The fourth-largest Nikai faction similarly let their members vote at their discretion, while the Takeshita faction did not pick a favorite.

Still, not everyone is convinced lawmakers will be able to freely choose who to back.

“The members of factions are supposedly able to vote on their will, but it’s utterly untrue if you look at what’s taking place behind the scenes,” Koizumi said at a rally for Kono on Thursday. “I’ve heard from (lawmakers) feeling perturbed saying they have been subjected to intense pressure and compelled to switch votes."

For Kono, it took several meetings to persuade Aso to condone his participation in the leadership race. Kono revealed Aso had been worried about whether this would be the right time for him to run, with the LDP heavyweight concerned that Kono could end up as a short-term leader and weaken the faction’s standing in the party.

Aso ultimately backed Kono's bid and gave him words of encouragement, but the finance minister has not definitively declared he would endorse him.

Despite tepid official support from the Hosoda and Aso factions, Kono is hoping to attract junior lawmakers who see the vaccine chief's popularity and name recognition as a path to securing votes in the fall Lower House election.

Kono also received a key endorsement Wednesday from Ishiba, who opted not to run again for LDP president.

“I am strongly convinced that Mr. Taro Kono is someone who believes in the principle that the LDP should be trusted among the public and should sympathize with the people,” Ishiba said Thursday.

Polls show that Ishiba, who effectively runs a 17-member faction, is a popular figure among LDP supporters and — while it's far from a guarantee — Kono may be able to count on the support of rank-and-file members who would have backed Ishiba.

But any formal alliance with Ishiba could further dissuade lawmakers from the Hosoda and Aso factions from supporting Kono. Ishiba is an unabashed critic of Abe and actively sought to oust Aso as prime minister in 2009. Conservative members may also be disinclined to back Kono following his announcement Thursday that he would support same-sex marriage and the use of different surnames for married couples.

Kono's candidacy could face other headwinds due to the format of the election. A total of 383 lawmakers and 383 rank-and-file members are eligible to vote, and Kono is likely envisioning a scenario where he wins the majority of the vote from rank-and-file members — who are more likely to vote for a popular candidate than be swayed by party politics.

“In any election, it’s important to receive support from anyone,” Kono said during a Fuji TV program Thursday. “When we hold an election, we can’t go by soliciting endorsement from this particular person but not that person.”

Former communications minister Sanae Takaichi speaks during a news conference on Sept. 8. | AFP-JIJI
Former communications minister Sanae Takaichi speaks during a news conference on Sept. 8. | AFP-JIJI

But if no candidates win a majority in the first round, the top two candidates advance to a run-off vote, with 383 lawmaker votes and only 47 prefectural representative votes up for grabs. If Kono ends up in a run-off, he would likely face a stiff uphill battle as lawmakers are likely to support candidates with more solid support among their peers in office. Kono's supporters are fearful that eligible voters who cast their ballots for candidates defeated in the first round would then support his rival candidate in the runoff.

Kono’s chances may have already taken a hit Thursday, after Noda, executive acting secretary-general, made a last-minute entry into the fray. Noda does not belong to a faction, but she has apparently secured endorsements from at least 20 lawmakers — a prerequisite for any bid.

Her candidacy is expected to take away votes from each candidate and that may be particularly painful for Kono. If voting in the first round becomes even more scattered, the odds of a run-off will become even higher.

Even before Noda officially entered the race, one senior member of the Takeshita faction speculated Thursday there was a high probability that a run-off will be required.

The campaign's latest entry promised she would continue to fight for vulnerable people if elected.

"Although each candidate has a variety of wonderful policies, it was difficult to find policies that would inspire the vulnerable, something which I have devoted my work to as a politician,” Noda said. “What Japan needs from now on is diversity. I’d like to work on conservative policies that will meet the values of women, children, the elderly and individuals with disabilities."

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