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The world is watching Japan in anticipation to see who will be the next to lead the country.

The choice is neither up to the Japanese people, nor is it something that will be decided within the confines of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. Instead, the decision rests solely within the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Much of the media will focus on the personalities and policies of the candidates seeking to take on Japan’s top job, but those are not the most important determinants. Instead, what’s more important is to look at the mechanics of how a successor will be chosen, since that has a lot more to do with who will succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than the agenda that the individual will champion once in the post.

After all, LDP party presidential elections are not policy games, they are numbers games. At the end of the day, the Japanese prime minister is the person that can win a “majority of the majority,” meaning the person’s party wins the majority of seats in the legislature, and the person wins the majority of votes within the party.

In the LDP, getting intra-party votes is not just about who has the strongest policy platform or who the Japanese public prefers the most — it is about who can best manage party politics to become its president.

Underwriting those intra-party politics are LDP factions. As I have described before in The Japan Times, it is not unusual for a political party to have cliques, blocs, or other similar groups, but in the LDP, these are simply institutionalized with formal membership and structure.

Five of the LDP’s factions are as old as the party itself — holdovers from when Japan’s center-left to right parties joined forces to form the LDP back in 1955. Since then, others have come and gone, but there are currently seven factions in existence today.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference after winning the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leadership vote at party headquarters in Tokyo in September 2018. | REUTERS
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference after winning the ruling Liberal Democratic Party leadership vote at party headquarters in Tokyo in September 2018. | REUTERS

Factions have been critical fixtures in the LDP for the past 65 years, influencing Cabinet appointments, policy agendas and who becomes prime minister. To clarify how important this is: Since 1955, there has not been an LDP prime minister who secured the position without factional affiliation.

When Abe took office in 2012, factions were at their weakest point ever in LDP history, but they have enjoyed a resurgence during his tenure. In 2012, 42 percent of LDP members in the Diet eschewed factional affiliation. But today, that number is down to just 16 percent. Abe has used factional lines in his Cabinet appointments, rewarding factional allies and punishing rivals, while generally apportioning out postings based on proportion of parliamentary members. In other words, if the faction comprises 15 percent of the LDP’s sitting Diet members, they could expect about 15 percent of Cabinet, sub-Cabinet, and LDP leadership postings during every reshuffle. Further, votes in the 2018 LDP party presidential election between Abe and rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, were hard and fast down factional lines.

This is important now because it means that if the LDP’s Diet members continue to vote according to factional preferences, it will have a major impact on who gets to succeed Abe. Ishiba’s faction consists of only nineteen members compared to Defense Minister Taro Kono, who comes from the Aso faction with 56 members.

Meanwhile, LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida only has 47 members in his faction, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga is an independent with no factional affiliation at all. Of course, Suga is in a better spot than some, because a quasi-faction of about dozen parliamentary members have coalesced around him.

That puts Suga in much better standing than Seiko Noda, who often gets a lot of media play as the only female LDP member who consistently throws her hat in the ring for party president. She is also an independent but is unlikely even to garner the nominations necessary to be able to run.

The thing is, no single faction has enough membership to determine the outcome of the upcoming party presidential race. This means that all the faction leaders are wheeling and dealing right now.

They will be asking themselves questions such as, is it better to take a run for the top spot right now, or to ally with someone else who will give me and my faction better Cabinet postings? Should I drop out of the race so I don’t split the vote only to have a rival win?

The answers that these faction leaders come up with will influence the decision on Japan’s next prime minister — not just in who to select, but how.

As I wrote last week, the LDP has to decide whether they will conduct a party presidential election that only includes sitting Diet members, or a full election that allows the party’s local chapters to vote. The answer to that question has to be decided among the LDP’s executives, and it will go hand-in-hand with who the faction leaders want to see as the next prime minister.

That particular decision is important because of Ishiba. The former defense minister has a solid chance of becoming the next prime minister if the LDP party presidential race includes local party chapters, because he is popular among regional politicians.

However, Ishiba is unpopular among the LDP’s Diet members, so his rivals may band together and seek to carry out a presidential election that limits those who can vote. That would mean that those rivals would elect a compromise prime minister that is not Ishiba.

Right now, the three faction leaders to watch are LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, former Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, and former General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita.

Nikai and Hosoda have high numbers of faction members but no viable candidates. They will seek to throw their weight behind an ally who will promise Cabinet postings and possibly policy concessions down the road.

Meanwhile, Takeshita’s faction includes prime ministerial hopeful and current Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, but Takeshita supported Ishiba in the 2018 party presidential election, while Motegi and others in the faction supported Abe. Where Takeshita decides to lean right now will be critical.

Beyond that, it will be important to watch how tightly faction leaders control their members in voting.

The level to which the LDP’s parliamentary members vote along factional lines will influence who becomes the next prime minister and will also be an indicator as to just how entrenched factions have become under Abe. That in turn will inform expectations for future Cabinet postings and how the LDP handles decision-making, at least in the near term.

In the meantime, observers of Japanese politics should keep in mind that the choice for the next prime minister is less about a candidate’s individual policies and personality than it is about the intra-party politicking within the LDP.

Alliances in the party will be formed and broken, and Abe’s successor will be the product of machinations taking place almost completely out of the public eye.

Such is the situation right now and the reality of Japan’s single-party political system.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow and is a Ph.D. candidate at the International University of Japan.

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