Japan's LDP at 60: Desire for safety in numbers behind revival of factions

Japan's LDP at 60: Desire for safety in numbers behind revival of factions
Figures based on Yomiuri Shimbun research and include party executives who withdrew from factions due to appointments to party posts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the House of Councillors are unaffliated with any faction.
PHOTO: The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN

This is the second instalment of a series.

On Nov. 9, Yusuke Nakanishi, a Liberal Democratic Party member of the House of Councillors, held out his smartphone.

From the speaker came the voice of Finance Minister Taro Aso.

"Nakanishi is a member of my faction and will move to Kochi," Aso said. "I hope you will give him your support."

This message was for the president of a corporate group in Kochi city. Nakanishi has been making some courtesy visits to presidents of businesses in Kochi. He currently represents a constituency in Tokushima Prefecture, but it will merge with one in neighbouring Kochi for next summer's upper house election.

To boost his support in an area to which he had no ties, Nakanishi turned to the party's Aso faction, to which he is affiliated. Aso's name carries weight in the region's business community due to his time as prime minister and head of the Junior Chamber International Japan. The corporate group president promised he would support Nakanishi's bid for election.

Nakanishi was first elected to the Diet in 2010. For several years, he was unaffiliated with any LDP faction, but he joined the Aso faction in January this year. At a time when the economic recovery being sought through the Abenomics economic policies trumpeted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is running out of steam, moves are growing - especially among young lawmakers - to seek comprehensive election support from the party's factions.

On Sept. 28, 20 LDP lawmakers, including Shigeru Ishiba, minister in charge of regional vitalization, assembled for the launch of Suigetsu-kai, a faction headed by Ishiba. Only a few factions are not descendants of the five major factions, which include the Tanaka and Fukuda factions; the other main example is the Nikai faction, which was formed when members of the New Conservative Party merged with the LDP. All 20 Suigetsu-kai members had previously been unaffiliated with any faction, and 13 were young lawmakers elected to the House of Representatives five times or less.

Ishiba labelled his faction "a start-up business." Just as this moniker indicates, one lower house member who had been elected twice said unashamedly: "I joined the faction because other factions give preference to lawmakers who have been elected many times and Diet members who come from political families. I think this is a short-cut to moving up the ranks."

Since January 2013, a liaison council of unaffiliated lawmakers that has supported Ishiba has at times included up to 50 names. "We want to double the number of lawmakers in our council before the next party presidential election in three years," a source close to Ishiba said.

Every Thursday, each LDP faction holds a lunch meeting at its office to discuss and share information about Diet affairs and the political situation. While this has become a familiar scene over the years, the matters on the agenda have changed.

Decisions on the main distribution of funds have shifted to the party, while the prime minister now calls the shots when it comes to selecting who will fill key posts. The cohesiveness of factions has declined, and since the LDP's time as an opposition party a few years ago, nonaffiliated lawmakers have accounted for the largest "faction."

However, this is changing. In December 2012, 30.7 per cent of LDP lawmakers were unattached to any faction; this has dropped to 24.3 per cent. Given that the number of LDP lawmakers has more than doubled during this period, it is evident that a trend toward a "revival of factions" is emerging within the party.

"There is a feeling of uncertainty because many lawmakers can't see who will replace Abe when his tenure ends," a veteran LDP lawmaker confided. "I think this is causing some of them to feel that they should 'look for a big tree when seeking shelter.'"

Nevertheless, all seven factions supported Abe's reelection as LDP president in September's election. Even Ishiba, who formed his faction after this election, said, "I will fully support the Abe Cabinet." There is no inkling of any struggle for power or dispute over policies rising to the surface.

However, a comment by Seiko Noda, who considered running in the presidential race but eventually opted not to due to pressure from party factions, could serve as a warning to the LDP. "Diversity should be a factor that gives the LDP appeal," said Noda, a former chief of the LDP General Council.

Her remark could acquire increasing importance as the presidential election in three years draws closer.

Factionless the largest force

The Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election in December 1956, won by Tanzan Ishibashi, is widely regarded as heralding the start of factional politics in Japan. The election resulted in the solidification of eight "private divisions" that would evolve into factions led by Nobusuke Kishi, Ichiro Kono, Eisaku Sato, Hayato Ikeda, Mitsujiro Ishii, Ishibashi, Banboku Ono, and Takeo Miki and Kenzo Matsumura.

After 1960, a pattern of competition between mainstream and anti-mainstream became established among the factions spearheaded by Kishi, Ikeda, Kono, Sato and Miki.

Following the launch of the Ishiba faction in late September, there are now eight LDP factions. According to Yomiuri Shimbun calculations, the Hosoda faction has the most members - 95. The smallest is the Santo faction, which has 10 members. Ninety-nine LDP lawmakers are not affiliated with any faction, so, for now, they are the largest force within the party.

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