LDP factions abuzz ahead of party race

Moves by factional groups within the Liberal Democratic Party are afoot as they jockey for influence ahead of the party presidency race this fall, in which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to seek re-election as LDP chief for a third — and final — three-year term. But the September LDP election, which should provide an opportunity for the party to sum up its appraisal of the Abe administration’s achievements and its policies, should not be determined by the same old factional interests and their game of numbers. Each of the LDP factions should prepare for the race by clarifying its own policies and its position toward the administration.

An internal feud that threatened to split the group led by former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga — which reportedly subsided after Nukaga agreed last week to demands that he step down as the group’s head — is said to have been staged by some of its members who were unhappy that he was doing nothing as leader to boost the faction’s influence and that he indicated support for Abe’s re-election too easily without trying to get anything in return. Meanwhile, the party’s largest faction, headed by veteran lawmaker Hiroyuki Hosoda and from which Abe himself hails, has launched exchanges with members of a group led by LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.

In his quest for a third term as LDP chief, Abe is believed to have the solid backing of the Hosoda faction plus two groups headed respectively by Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai — which combined account for roughly half of the LDP’s Diet members. To solidify his chances for re-election, Abe is reportedly counting on support from Kishida’s faction, although Kishida himself has not made clear whether he will run in the party race in September.

Abe, who has led the LDP to landslide victories in all five nationwide Diet elections held since he returned to the party’s helm in 2012, is seen holding a commanding lead in the party race. Nikai, the party’s No. 2 man, told a TV program in early February that Abe will most certainly win re-election. But unlike three years ago, when Abe was elected to his second term without a contest, former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba — deemed a potential candidate as post-Abe leader of the party — is making preparations to challenge the prime minister in the September election, such as publishing a book compiling policy discussions by members of his small group, a part of which disputes Abe’s plans for amending Article 9 of the Constitution. Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Seiko Noda, who gave up running against Abe in 2015 after failing to get endorsement from enough LDP colleagues, is also interested in joining the race.

The power and roles of factional groups within the LDP have changed a lot since the past days when their balance of power heavily influenced the party’s decisions, including the election of its president. In the fierce rivalry among the factions — each of which was led by party president and prime minister hopefuls — what mattered was the numbers of each faction’s members. In their struggle for power, the factions maneuvered to outdo each other by building alliances. The predecessor of Nukaga’s group — which was founded by the late Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in the mid-1980s — wielded enormous influence through the 1990s as the party’s largest faction by either using the force to elect members from its own ranks as LDP chief or as a casting vote that determined the race.

However, the influence of LDP factions waned after the introduction of the current single-seat electoral district system in the Lower House and reform of the system controlling political funds in the mid-1990s boosted the power of the party’s leadership. After Abe returned the LDP to the government’s helm in 2012, few factional leaders within the LDP challenged the prime minister’s leadership. In 2015, the leaders of all of the party’s factions endorsed Abe’s re-election as LDP chief. The feud in the group led by Nukaga, who has never bid for the party’s leadership, appears to symbolize the depleted power of the factions.

Alliances among the LDP’s factional groups may be inevitable as a means to secure a foothold in the party leadership race. But that must not end in a sheer game of numbers that sets aside their policy ideals. Whether they support Abe’s re-election or not, the LDP factions and their leaders should make their policy positions clear as they prepare for the race.