Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba last week decided to step down as the head of his faction.

While at face value this means that he will no longer lead the 19-member group within the party, his decision has left many wondering what else this may portend in terms of LDP factional politics and Ishiba’s future political prospects.

After all, Ishiba has long sought to become Japan’s prime minister and, despite his failure to achieve the top billet, he remains one of the most popular LDP politicians among voters.

To understand the implications of his decision, there are three questions that need to be answered.

1) Why did Ishiba form a faction in the first place?

The LDP factional system is a holdover from the origins of the party in 1955 and persists today for several reasons. While those reasons have evolved over the years, the primary function of factions remains the same: to produce a party president who subsequently becomes the prime minister when the LDP controls the legislature.

In spite of the factions’ importance within the party’s internal system, Ishiba has been famously anti-faction, eschewing formal ties for the better part of two decades. Privately, Ishiba has decried factions as a remnant of a money-driven LDP that favored pedigree and old guard politics over merit and sound policymaking.

So if Ishiba was so against this system, why did he decide in late 2015 to form his own faction? The simple answer is that his closest followers in the LDP insisted that he do so.

There are several reasons why they would insist that. First, up to that point, the LDP had never picked a party president that did not have factional affiliation. Therefore, they believed that for Ishiba to have a chance, he would need to have his own formal faction to back him.

Second, faction leaders have more leverage in jockeying for Cabinet posts for junior supporters. With hundreds of sitting Diet members in the LDP, those with no factional affiliation have a difficult time gaining Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions unless they have personal connections with members of the prime minister or the LDP secretary-general’s inner circles.

Faction heads, however, get a seat at the table when deciding who gets which posts during each Cabinet reshuffle. Thus, in pushing for establishing a formal faction, Ishiba’s followers were also seeking to reap the benefits.

Finally, Ishiba’s followers believed in the importance of factional prestige within the LDP. Factions are woven into the institutional culture within the party, and the members desired to gain that sense of identity that comes with being affiliated with the “Ishiba faction.” So ingrained is the party’s cultural practice surrounding factions that even the naming process is ritualized.

As a result, if you ever wondered why Ishiba’s faction is formally called the Suigetsukai, the answer is simply because the group had to visit a Shinto priest who imagined the “moon reflecting on the water” when he tried to conceptualize its brand of politics.

So, in sum, Ishiba formed a faction at the behest of his followers in a bid to launch him into the party presidency and to elevate the stature of his cohort.

2) Why might have Ishiba decided to step down?

Aside from himself, there are only a handful of people who really know why Ishiba stepped down. He is still a politician and a cunning one at that, so what he’s chosen to reveal on the surface will only offer part of the answer.

Ishiba has said his decision to step down was based on his loss in the most recent LDP presidential race. That is partly true. The rest of the story is that if Ishiba felt like the faction was actually going to work in making him party president (and, subsequently, prime minister), then there would be utility in him continuing as the faction head.

However, he has twice run for party presidency as a faction head and twice failed. Adding insult to injury, Yoshihide Suga won the presidency without having to be formally affiliated with any faction, albeit because the biggest LDP factions engineered a party presidential race that significantly handicapped Ishiba and his supporters.

Further, running a faction is a lot of work, especially with no extra funding streams or inherited cash supply. Ishiba and his small staff had to manage the herculean tasks of looking after the needs of 19 outspoken faction members while juggling intra-party factional politics. This is time-consuming and cumbersome, especially when trying to handle all of the other requirements for a prime ministerial candidate.

Understanding the effort required to run a faction and that being a faction head twice failed to give him any additional leverage in party presidential races, there was simply not enough reason for Ishiba to continue in that role. Handing the reins to someone else allows Ishiba to focus his energy and effort on being Ishiba — that is, an independent-minded challenger to the LDP old guard.

3) Does this mean Ishiba has abandoned hope for pursuing party leadership?

Not necessarily, since Ishiba’ decision to step down as faction head makes him neither more nor less likely to run again when the time comes. He still has much more time to make that decision — only in the next race, he will be free from the tasks associated with leading a faction.

Will an unencumbered Ishiba make another run? He still has time to make that decision, since Suga is safe as LDP party president until September next year. With 10 months left, Ishiba has time to regroup and, if he desires, dedicate time to developing a policy manifesto rather than dealing with the day-to-day minutiae of running a faction.

Ishiba’s departure as a faction head certainly weakens the Suigetsukai faction, but it does not shift the power balance of the LDP. If anything, it reinforces the LDP’s factional system because Ishiba’s departure removes the outlier from among the LDP’s faction heads. Ishiba’s replacement, Ichiro Kamoshita, simply does not have the influence to be able to contend with the likes of old guard politicians such as Taro Aso and Toshihiro Nikai. The faction will have to fall in behind the others.

In the meantime, Ishiba’s resignation as faction head reveals a reset period for Suga’s would-be challengers. The prime minister is given a brief reprieve into the top job, something he will have to take advantage of in the coming months ahead of the next party presidential race and with a snap election looming. If Suga can stay out of trouble, the big factions will continue to jockey for position, leaving no room for smaller factions to make plays for party leadership. Then again, if the prime minister falters, he may find a newly freed Ishiba primed and waiting in the wings.

Dr. 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.

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