Why LDP factions still matter for Abe

Picture: Reuters

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 6, No 8, August 2018

Shinzo Abe has already become the third longest-serving prime minister in post-war Japan. He will be seeking a third three-year term as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president in September 2018 and if re-elected will continue as prime minister because of the LDP’s majority in Japan’s House of Representatives. As a general election is not due until 2021, Abe may therefore become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s parliamentary history. Factions (habatsu) within the LDP will play a crucial role in Abe’s re-election.

Factions in the LDP became an integral part of political life under Japan’s LDP-dominant system of government. They grew out of the mergers of conservative political parties into the LDP in post-war Japan and became the personal fiefdoms of powerful political figures within the Party.

In the absence of a viable political alternative to the LDP in Japan’s post-war electoral politics, these factions became the mainstays of intra-Party competition. The loyalty of LDP members lay with their factions as opposed to the Party as a whole. These factions’ role was to raise funds and then distribute them to their members to compete against other factions in the multi-member electoral districts of post-war Japan. Factions, represented by their leaders, bargained with the prime minister of the day to distribute cabinet positions in proportion to their factional strength in parliament.

The power and authority of decision making now mainly lies in the Prime Minister’s Office and the LDP headquarters — away from factional fiefdoms

With the introduction of a single-member electoral district system for the majority of lower house seats together with changes in political funding laws in the mid-1990s, factional politics lost its electoral relevance considerably and the Party headquarters gained more power in selecting candidates for electoral districts. Arguably, the loyalty of Party members shifted from their factions to the Party leadership.

More prominently, factions became almost irrelevant when former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi sidelined factional members and their leaders in the snap election that he called in 2005 — recruiting ‘assassin’ candidates against those faction members who did not support his reform plan. Koizumi’s strategy paid dividends and he led the LDP to a landslide victory without caring for the decade-old practices of intra-Party factional competition. Under Abe the Party leadership has become even more important. The power and authority of decision making now mainly lies in the Prime Minister’s Office and the LDP headquarters — away from factional fiefdoms. Indeed, Abe has not paid serious attention to factional strengths while distributing cabinet positions. It is loyalty to him that matters the most.

Even so, the habatsu is still relevant, if serving a different function. In Party presidential elections, they still play a crucial role. For a candidate to win the presidency, majority support from the factions is critical. Currently there are seven factions to which most LDP parliamentarians belong, although some remain unaligned. Leaders of the two major factions, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, have announced their unconditional support for Abe. When the faction led by LDP veteran Hiroyuki Hosoda (to which Abe belongs) as well as the faction led by former minister of foreign affairs Fumio Kishida (who has announced he will not run against Abe) are counted, support for Abe comes close to a two-thirds majority among LDP parliamentarians.

Although the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communication Seiko Noda and popular young lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi are often considered as competitive candidates for the Party presidency, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba is the only worthy opponent for Abe. In the 2012 Party presidential election, Ishiba offered a formidable challenge to Abe in the first round of elections and it was only in the second-round runoff that Abe won the presidency. This time around though, Ishiba does not have the numbers within the LDP factions. For Abe, on the other hand, it seems like a done deal.

The role of factions remains crucial in the LDP’s presidential elections and we should not write off the centrality of factions in Party matters just yet, even if they have lost some of their past glory.

About the author

Purnendra Jain is Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide. He is currently affiliated with the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. Takeshi Kobayashi holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from American University, Cairo and currently serves as a staffer to a House of Councillors member.

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