With the governing Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election a month away, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe has emerged as the overwhelming favorite to win the post, and hence to become the next prime minister.

Among the LDP’s nine factions, major ones have jumped on the Abe bandwagon. Other contenders for the party presidency — Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and Foreign Minister Taro Aso — come from minor factions.

For decades, the LDP’s interfactional power struggles for the presidency and the premiership have been a source of the party’s strength, but that was before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s strategy of “crushing” factional influence. One after another, most LDP factions have moved to support the largest faction, headed by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which backs Abe. As a result, policy debate ahead of the election has been marginalized.

Defense Agency Director General Fukushiro Nukaga of the second-largest faction, led by Yuji Tsushima, was intent on running at one point, but faction leaders decided against fielding him to avoid saddling him with a loss. Faction members are free to vote for any candidate, but most are said to support Abe.

The situation illustrates how politics makes strange bedfellows. The Tsushima faction, rooted in a defunct faction led by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, is in effect supporting the candidate of the Mori faction, which has its roots in another defunct group, headed by Tanaka’s former archrival, former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.

Tsushima faction leaders decided against fielding their own candidate this time because of their devastating defeat in the last presidential election. Lower House members of the group, headed in 2003 by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, were sharply divided in their support between Koizumi (for re-election) and the group’s own candidate. The latter’s loss caused ill feeling among faction members and seriously weakened the group’s clout in the party.

Former LDP Vice President Taku Yamasaki, who heads the fourth-largest faction, considered running, saying a sound alternative leadership force was necessary. But Yamasaki loyalists who support Abe opposed his idea. Yamasaki eventually gave up, fearing his candidacy would split the group. This shows the weakened state of faction leaders’ influence.

Most members of the third-largest faction, led by Yuya Niwa and Makoto Koga, reportedly support Abe. The group shares the same roots as the Tanigaki faction — formerly part of the factions led by former Prime Ministers Masayoshi Ohira and Kiichi Miyazawa — and Yohei Kono’s group, whose members include Aso.

Koga, a former LDP secretary general who advocates the separate enshrinement of Class-A war criminals now honored at Yasukuni Shrine, was once considered likely to lead the anti-Abe forces. But Koga reportedly decided to support Abe in view of his group’s strong pro-Abe sentiment.

Groups led by Bunmei Ibuki and Toshihiro Nikai have also expressed support for Abe.

Koizumi, meanwhile, visited Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, the 61st anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The Yasukuni problem has emerged as a major issue in the LDP presidential election, but Abe has consistently declined comment on whether he will visit the shrine as prime minister.

Tanigaki says he will refrain from visiting the shrine if elected prime minister, while Aso advocates converting the shrine into a government-backed nonreligious facility to settle the controversy.

Among the factions not fielding candidates, the Yamasaki group has proposed studies on the construction of a new memorial for the war dead. Other groups have proposed vague solutions to make them appear acceptable to the Abe camp. Former LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato worries that the LDP could turn into a lifeless organization that shuns policy debate and stifles objections.

One of the most important political issues is how much to raise the general consumption tax to restore the nation’s fiscal health, but with LDP factions supporting Abe en masse, policy debate on the issue is likely to be damped. If that happens, the public will have little chance to see how the incoming administration will deal with crucial issues.

LDP presidential elections used to see intense rivalry for majority support and factional struggles that led to personal grudges. One example was the bitter battle between Tanaka and Fukuda for the LDP presidency after Prime Minister Eisaku Sato stepped down. Thirty years later, Koizumi, whose political mentor was Fukuda, has pushed structural reforms such as the privatization of the postal service and the public highway corporations, hitting hard at industry groups that served as the support base for the defunct Tanaka faction.

As a result of Koizumi’s reforms, the LDP’s support base as a whole has been undermined, and its vote-gathering machine has become incapacitated. That’s why Mikio Aoki, chairman of the LDP’s Upper House caucus, is concerned about the outcome of the Upper House election next summer.

Major LDP factions have lost much of their strength in vying for the party presidency due to dramatic changes in factional power dynamics. Koizumi has called rebel factions “resistance forces,” refusing to appoint their members to major Cabinet and LDP posts. As a result of changes under Koizumi’s five-year iron-fist rule, LDP members have rushed to support Abe to obtain cushy posts in his administration.

When the LDP lost its majority in the Lower House in the 1993 general election, becoming an opposition party for a short period, it lost the power to compile government budgets and grant favors to industry groups. Ten months later, the LDP returned to power under a coalition government headed by Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. It is clear that the LDP does not care about political principles and does anything and everything to cling to power.

The LDP presidential election is Sept. 20, with the campaign starting on Sept. 8. Commenting on factions’ moves to join the Abe bandwagon, Aso said sarcastically, “It looks like the drama was over as soon as it opened.”

Should the ruling coalition lose its majority in the Upper House election next summer, the administration will be seriously weakened. That could lead to a major political realignment, possibly involving the opposition Democratic Party of Japan — not just a reorganization of LDP factions. The drama is far from over.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.