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Factional beat of the LDP

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party could very well be in for a bitter power struggle among three of its principal intraparty factions following the general election expected by September. The outcome of that struggle could also be a harbinger of a broader political reorganization involving not only the LDP but also the Democratic Party of Japan, the No. 1 opposition group.

The LDP, which has ruled Japan since 1955 except for a brief interruption, is made up of a number of “factions” or “cliques,” each of which functions like a political party. That’s why the LDP is sometimes referred to as a “coalition of conservative parties.”

Until around 13 years ago, when the members of the Lower House were elected from constituencies of two or more seats, the head of an intraparty faction was a powerful figure with control over campaign funds, the right to name candidates and the power to nominate lawmakers for Cabinet posts.

The LDP’s current “Big Three” factions are: Heisei Research Group, headed by former Welfare Minister Yuji Tsushima, whose roots go back to the Keiseikai group and further to former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka; Seiwa Policy Research Group, led by former Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and originally set up by former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda; and Kochikai, under former Transport Minister Makoto Koga, whose former leaders include former Prime Ministers Hayato Ikeda, Masayoshi Ohira and Kiichi Miyazawa.

Many leading figures of the opposition DPJ, including ex-leader Ichiro Ozawa, current leader Yukio Hatoyama and secretary general Katsuya Okada, used to belong to Keiseikai before bolting the LDP after a power struggle. This fact, together with the fact that there is no fundamental policy difference between the LDP and DPJ, has led some veteran LDP lawmakers to view the upcoming general election as more of an intraparty factional battle than a fight between two major political parties.

Nevertheless, the focal point in the election will be whether the LDP or the DPJ becomes the largest group in the Lower House. Even if the LDP, headed by incumbent Prime Minister Taro Aso, manages to win, there is no chance that the ruling coalition of the LDP and Komeito will command a two-thirds majority in the Lower House as it does now.

Assuming the general election will be followed by a drastic reorganization of the political parties, each LDP faction is eager to win more parliamentary seats to gain an advantage in such a reorganization.

Among the smaller LDP factions, one led by former Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki, whose roots are in Seisaku Kagaku Kenkyujo (Police Science Research Institution), a faction led by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, is said to be considering a merger with another group headed by ex-LDP vice president Taku Yamasaki.

The Ibuki faction, which used to be the third-largest within the LDP, lost many of its members in the previous election when then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi refused to tolerate anyone opposed to the privatization of postal services. If these two groups merge and succeed in recruiting those former LDP lawmakers who were ousted, they could very well become the key to political reorganization.

In February there was internal strife within Seiwa Policy Research Group, the largest intraparty faction headed by Machimura. Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, perhaps the most prominent figure in the group and a strong supporter of Prime Minister Aso, tried to oust former LDP secretary general Hidenao Nakagawa. With Aso’s popularity dwindling, Nakagawa had expressed doubt that the LDP could win the upcoming general election under Aso’s leadership. Thus Nakagawa was trying to take the initiative in reorganizing the political groupings.

Mori played the crucial role in making the Seiwa group the largest LDP faction after he took the reins of government in April 2000. He was followed by Koizumi, Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda, all members of the same group. Mori knows the benefits of being in a mainstream faction. That’s why he could not tolerate any move within his group to oppose the incumbent head of government.

Another thing that worried Mori was the large number of Seiwa group lawmakers who were elected in the 2005 election on the coattails of Koizumi’s postal service privatization program but who now stand a good chance of losing in the upcoming election.

In stark contrast, many lawmakers belonging to Kochikai are expected to be re-elected. If this group reunites with the followers of Prime Minister Aso, it could become the most powerful force within the LDP. In such a situation, Seiwa’s relative strength would shrink. Mori is said to believe that he or the group cannot afford to antagonize Aso at this time for fear that Aso, if he retains power, could retaliate against Seiwa.

Keiseikai dominated the LDP for three decades, yet its successor Heisei Research Group appears to be on the wane, as none of its leaders seems capable of restoring its past glory. Former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga cannot win enough support within the group. Neither former Economic Planning Agency Director Hajime Fukuda nor Agriculture-Forestry Minister Shigeru Ishiba has the power and personality to lead the group. And Mikio Aoki, former head of the LDP Upper House Caucus, has lost much of the influence he once had.

It is ironic that some of the original Keiseikai members who deserted the LDP are in the limelight today, such as Ozawa, Hatoyama and Okada of the DPJ.

It has been 13 years since the single-seat constituency system and the proportionate representation formula for Lower House elections were introduced. These reforms were supposed to do away with, or at least weaken, the faction-based politics played by the Liberal Democrats for decades. This apparently has not happened. If the reorganization of the political landscape after the next general election is pursued by the various intraparty factions, there will be no end to the age-old tradition.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the June issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.