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When Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Fumio Kishida announced his candidacy for the party presidency last month, he put forward plans to reform the rules surrounding senior party posts, with the proposals notably covering the position of secretary-general.

Kishida, a former foreign minister and LDP policy council chair, favors a maximum of three years for posts such as secretary-general, for which there are currently no term limits. The move was seen as a way to win support from lawmakers worried about the powerful position being monopolized indefinitely by one person — concerns that are strengthened by the fact that it’s the secretary-general who can pick and choose which lawmakers get party support for election or re-election.

What is the position of secretary-general?

In the LDP, the secretary-general is, along with the party’s general affairs chair, policy research chair and election strategy chair, one of the four main posts. The LDP party president is the official leader of the party, and there is a vice-president, although the latter is more of a ceremonial position. The more powerful secretary-general is the party’s de facto No. 2.

The secretary-general — currently Toshihiro Nikai — is appointed by the LDP president with the formal approval of the general council, the party’s 25-member governing body composed of Diet members. Underneath this position are up to 30 deputy secretary-generals, one of whom is appointed as acting secretary-general — Seiko Noda, one of the candidates for the LDP presidency, current holds that position.

The top three LDP posts of president, vice-president and secretary-general have been compared to the roles of chairman, senior advisor and president in a major corporation, respectively. In other words, the secretary-general post is where power over day-to-day operations and executive decisions rests. Within the party, the buck stops with the secretary-general, while the party president is in principle the prime minister when the LDP is in power.

What powers does the secretary-general have?

The most important is control over the party purse. The secretary-general is authorized to raise political donations and direct how much will be spent on party members, especially candidates for the Diet. He or she also has final authority over the list of official party-backed candidates in Lower and Upper House elections.

A Liberal Democratic Party executive meeting is held at its headquarters in Tokyo on Sep. 3. | KYODO
A Liberal Democratic Party executive meeting is held at its headquarters in Tokyo on Sep. 3. | KYODO

In addition, the secretary-general oversees the party’s Diet Affairs committee, which is responsible for steering party-supported bills through both chambers of the Diet. As such, dealing with other parties’ counterparts to hammer out differences over bills falls under their responsibilities, so diplomatic skills are also paramount.

Finally, the secretary-general is in charge of key party organizations that include the personnel, accounting and international bureaus, as well as the party’s information research department.

Why is choosing a secretary-general such a big issue this time?

Once the Sept. 29 LDP presidential election has concluded, a general election will soon follow — most likely on Nov. 7, but possibly on Nov. 14. There will be little time left for not only the LDP but all parties to decide on the final slate of candidates in each electoral district.

In the past when there was a system of multiple-seat districts, this wasn’t as big a deal — different LDP members from different factions could run and win seats in the same constituency. There was also less need for the secretary-general to serve as an umpire in districts where two factions were pushing their preferred candidates for one seat, or where the local party chapter’s preferred candidate was different from the person preferred by the central party headquarters.

However, since the single-seat constituency system for the Lower House was introduced in 1994, there has been increased friction between different party factions or between local prefectural chapters and the central headquarters, in particular the secretary-general, over who to officially endorse in a district.

In the upcoming election, Nikai has gone against the wishes of other powerful factions in at least two races. In Niigata Prefecture, the district that includes the prefectural capital and the city of Kashiwazaki, host of a nuclear power plant, is turning into a clash between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — via the Hosoda faction — and Nikai.

The Liberal Democratic Party's secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai speaks to reporters. | KYODO
The Liberal Democratic Party’s secretary-general Toshihiro Nikai speaks to reporters. | KYODO

Kenichi Hosoda, a member of the Hosoda faction although no relation to its nominal leader, indicated he’d be the LDP’s choice at a meeting where Abe was present. However, Nikai is supporting Eiichiro Washio, who beat Hosoda in the 2017 election as a nonaffiliated candidate and then joined the LDP afterwards. Hosoda returned to the Diet by winning a proportional representation seat.

And in Gunma Prefecture, Yasutaka Nakasone, the grandson of former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, was elected by proportional representation in the northern Kanto block in 2017. He is a member of the Nikai faction and seeks the Gunma No. 1 district seat.

But that seat is held by Asako Omi, a member of the Hosoda Faction and the daughter of former Finance Minister Koji Omi, who is close to Abe. In June, Abe said it would be “impossible” for Omi not to run as the candidate.

Nikai has said only that a decision on the candidate will be made after carefully listening to local supporters, but he is under pressure within his faction to support Nakasone.

Will Nikai keep his post after Sept. 29?

Kishida, who is backed by his own faction, which has sometimes clashed with Nikai, has made it clear he would replace the 82-year-old, who assumed office in August 2016 and is the LDP’s longest-serving secretary-general. Other powerful faction leaders, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who is the de facto head of the Hosoda group, the party’s largest — and Finance Minister Taro Aso, are also against Nikai continuing.

The other candidates have not said whether they would keep Nikai or replace him with someone younger.

Whoever assumes the position will immediately be faced with the task of guiding the party through the general election in November. Depending on the outcome, the secretary-general could be reappointed or replaced with someone else, someone the party members hope will lead them to better results in the following national election — an Upper House poll next summer.

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