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Factionalism has often been said to be the hallmark of the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the nation for most of the past 50 years. The LDP landslide in the Sept. 11 Lower House election, however, has dramatically altered the party’s internal structure. In particular, its factional politics has undergone qualitative changes.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who assumed the LDP presidency in 2001, has since vowed repeatedly to “smash the party” — implying, among other things, that he is determined to destroy the factionalism that stands in the way of his structural reform initiatives. He has urged all 83 newly elected LDP legislators not to join any faction.

The LDP has developed largely as a conglomerate of factions since the merger of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party in 1955. In fact, the new party at its inception was dubbed an “army of eight divisions.” The ultimate aim of a faction has been, and still is, to have its leader elected party president and prime minister.

Therefore, faction leaders have done everything in their power to maintain and expand their groups. For example, they have financed the election campaigns of followers and arranged for key members of their factions to get Cabinet and party posts. Thus factions have operated as “parties within a party” — an operation that has required a huge war chest.

That is part of the reason why money-driven political scandals have proliferated among LDP politicians. More often than not, rival factions locked in fierce power struggles have tried to serve their interests first — not the party’s, still less the nation’s — creating a deep mistrust of LDP politics among the people.

It is also true, though, that factional politics has done the LDP — and the nation — considerable good. During its long one-party rule, which continued until 1993 when a non-LDP coalition administration came into office, power effectively transferred from one faction to another. These swings of the intraparty political pendulum have allowed the party to make major policy changes without seriously jeopardizing its unity.

For example, Japan-China relations were normalized under Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka following a stalemate in the administration of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. A valued-added consumption tax was introduced in 1989 by Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in the wake of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s failed plan for a “sales tax.”

It is not just policy issues that factional power change has resolved. The Tanaka administration, for instance, was beset by money scandals, including those involving himself. Tanaka was replaced by Prime Minister Takeo Miki, who was widely regarded as a “clean” politician. The LDP’s image as a scandal-tainted party improved, if temporarily, during the Miki administration.

One thing that has contributed in a large way to these “quasi-power shifts” among LDP factions is the consistent efforts of faction leaders, underscored by the will to steer the nation, to articulate domestic- and foreign-policy goals and challenges. In the case of Mr. Koizumi, himself a former faction chief, his central policy is to privatize the postal services — a policy goal he began to advocate long before taking office.

Now the LDP faces a dilemma of sorts. The decline of factional influence has sapped the influence of faction leaders, thus reducing their chances of becoming the party president (and the prime minister). In fact, not a single faction head is included in the purported list of likely successors to Mr. Koizumi. An LDP presidential election is just a year away, yet no Liberal Democrats are coming up with policy plans of their own. This could mean that only those loyal to Mr. Koizumi may have the best chance of succeeding him.

The diminishing weight of factions also raises questions about the prospects for “training politicians.” Factions once played a vital role in tapping promising candidates and educating elected ones. The party has held orientation seminars for the 83 newcomers, but much more needs to be done to help develop their political abilities.

The latest election, which Mr. Koizumi defined as a referendum on his postal reform agenda, has shown that the LDP leadership has a powerful right to select official candidates according to its criteria. Some antireform candidates, including veteran legislators, were rejected as “outsiders.” This has been criticized by many as “cruel” or “unfair.”

LDP executives, from Mr. Koizumi on down, would do well to establish clear-cut standards for candidate selection as well as guideposts for intraparty training. Also in order is an objective re-examination of the merits and demerits of factionalism.

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