Last week, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe earned a promotion of sorts when he was voted to become the next head of the “Seiwa Seisaku Kenykyukai,” one of the Liberal Democratic Party’s seven formal factions.
In doing so, he became the boss of the LDP’s largest intraparty group, opening a debate of whether this move will cement Abe as the next “kingmaker” in Japanese politics.
Abe’s formal appointment as a faction head is undoubtedly a notable development. Factions are essentially ready-made voting blocs that empower their leader in his or her dealings with other party bosses. There is strength in numbers, and in theory, the bigger the faction, the more influential the faction head becomes.
In practice, however, Abe’s ascension alone does not guarantee him command of the future trajectory of the LDP. His faction may be the largest, but with only a little more than 20% of the party’s sitting parliamentarians, the group cannot dictate terms unilaterally. Decisions will still have to be brokered through power struggles that will play out over the next few years.
To understand where Abe is headed as a faction leader, it is necessary to look at the circumstances that led to his appointment. Like most LDP members, Abe belonged to a faction for most of his career — in his case, he was part of the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, then under the leadership of Nobutaka Machimura. In 2012, he had to leave the faction because he won the party presidency, and an unwritten rule in the LDP is that party presidents must eschew formal factional ties as long as they are leading the party. This also meant that when Abe’s former faction head, Machimura, passed away in 2015, someone other than Abe had to take the mantle.
Although he was not formally attached to the faction, as the party president, prime minister and all-around most powerful politician tied to the group, Abe had the final say and gave his blessing for veteran lawmaker and former Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda to fill the vacancy. Hosoda served as faction head until earning an appointment to become speaker of the Lower House. Like the party president, the LDP requires house speakers to cut factional ties, leaving Hosoda’s position vacant.
Given Abe’s prominence in the party and ties to the faction, it would seem that his replacing Hosoda was a foregone conclusion, but the situation is more complicated than that. Abe does not have a track record of being a traditional factional power player. In fact, in 2012, Abe ran for party president against his own faction head, Machimura. Further, Abe deliberately chose to center his power base within the LDP on policy and ideology, factional membership notwithstanding.
In other words, Abe neither played by the factional rules nor really concerned himself with prioritizing the members of his faction over other allies. We must remember that even in the most recent party presidential election, Abe did not try to elevate someone from the Hosoda faction, but backed Sanae Takaichi, an independent within the LDP.
Abe probably would have been content playing the role of shadow broker behind the scenes without all of the obligations that come with being a faction boss. However, the outcomes of the 2021 LDP presidential election and Lower House vote forced his hand. Put another way, Abe’s choice to take over the faction is not necessarily a demonstration of strength.
Some may wonder how Abe’s position weakened over the past two months, but all signs pointed to the public’s desire to move beyond the Abe era to something new.
The most popular candidate in the LDP presidential race was the pro-reform Taro Kono. Fumio Kishida won as a compromise candidate for the LDP, but subsequently campaigned for the Lower House election on the promise of doing things differently from his predecessors. Further, Abe’s strongest ally inside the administration, Akira Amari, failed to win his own district and lost his job as LDP secretary-general.
Abe and his allies had to find another way to right their ship, and that meant going back to the traditional LDP factional playbook. They saw to it that it was Hosoda who was elevated to the speaker of the Lower House position — another job in which the LDP requires its members to remove factional ties. That opened up the opportunity for Abe to take over, putting him in command of the LDP’s largest faction.
The problem for Abe is that being a faction head is not easy. Leading the LDP’s largest faction is even more complicated. That is because a faction leader is obligated to deliver benefits to the group’s members in exchange for their loyalty. That means the faction head is ultimately responsible for (among other things) negotiating Cabinet postings, coordinating decisions on electoral districting, leading faction meetings and presiding over social events that extend prestige to its faction members.
All those things take time, money and attention, and they are all duties that Abe has not been so keen to handle during his political career. He could delegate those tasks, but being a laissez-faire faction head failed for others in the past.
For all the potential benefits of having a ready-made voting bloc to support him, the position introduces both additional responsibilities and risks. Failure to carry out his duties as faction head can contribute to members breaking ranks in voting or, just as Abe himself demonstrated in 2012, overtly challenging the leadership. His faction has many members, some of whom want to see themselves as prime minister one day, including Hakubun Shimomura and Tomomi Inada. In a sign that perhaps Abe was not a resounding choice, only around 20 of the 87 faction members actually showed up to Abe’s inaugural meeting as faction head. Abe now has to find a way to manage all those personalities at a time when his influence in the administration is waning, not increasing.
That’s why it’s not as simple as saying: “Abe leads the largest faction and therefore will be the kingmaker in the LDP. ” It certainly puts him in a better position to earn that title, but he needs to settle into the role, work with senior members of his faction to craft a political strategy for the coming years and carry out all his responsibilities as faction head.
There are a few key indicators for tracking Abe’s progress as faction head. The first is the number of faction members. Abe is taking over a faction that currently has 87 members, so if he can encourage others to join, that would be a good sign for him.
The second indicator is how many of his personal policy agenda items earn prioritization from the Kishida administration in the new year. Namely, we should watch to see what legacy items from the Abe years hold firm in 2022 and how far the LDP tries to push constitutional amendments in the parliamentary and public discourse.
The final and most important indicator will come with the next Upper House election and subsequent Cabinet reshuffle. The more Abe faction members populate the Cabinet, the more influential Abe has become.
While Abe has secured his formal leadership over a large number of lawmakers, nothing is guaranteed for him from here on out. He has much work to do and little experience doing it, so the next year is going to be crucial for him.
In the meantime, observers of Japanese politics will have to wait and see whether an old prime minister can learn new tricks.
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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