Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided on Aug. 1 to replace Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki, who is in the hospital for an injury, with General Council Chairman Toshihiro Nikai. Abe had considered retaining Tanigaki but Tanigaki declined, so he had to go for the second best option. By appointing a political heavyweight with a reputation for his coordination skills, Abe is aiming at consolidating his support base in the party. There is also an opinion that this is a step toward laying the groundwork for extending his term as LDP president, which expires in September 2018.
Abe had insisted on keeping Tanigaki because he was concerned that replacing him might bring about a qualitative change in the relationship between the Kantei (Prime Minister’s Official Residence) and the LDP.
He even offered to retain Tanigaki and defer a final decision until the extraordinary Diet session in September, but Tanigaki still declined, so Abe had to resort to other options.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Executive Acting Secretary General Hiroyuki Hosoda emerged as possible choices, but it would be difficult to move Kishida to a new position since he has to work on diplomacy with Russia in the latter half of the year. Giving the job of secretary general to someone from Abe’s faction, the Hosoda faction would give rise to discontent in the party. Therefore, Nikai became the right candidate.
A senior LDP official observed that the appointment of Nikai is out of a sense of security because Nikai would “never betray” Abe. Since becoming the General Council chief in 2014, Nikai has taken the initiative to facilitate Abe’s policies when the party was in turmoil over the security laws or the reduced consumption tax rate issue. He advocated the postponement of the consumption tax hike at an early stage and lost no time in giving his support to Abe in the previous LDP presidential election.
Nikai has connections in both the ruling and opposition parties. Many think that he will become the “key person” in coordination between the ruling and opposition parties to achieve Abe’s long-cherished dream of revising the constitution.
Three days after Tanigaki’s hospitalization, Nikai was already talking about extending the LDP president’s term of office on July 19. Under LDP rules, the president can only serve for two three-year terms. Abe is in his second term, with over two years left in his term.
If the LDP rules are to be changed, this needs to be done in the next two party conventions. The appointment of Nikai, who has strong influence in the party and who is openly supporting the extension of the president’s term, has given rise to wide speculation that Abe wants to change the party rules.
The revamp of the LDP leadership is also a reflection of election strategy. There is an opinion that the appointment of Nikai is meant to “shore up the party in preparation for the next election.” Nikai used to be an election strategy officer of the defunct New Frontier Party and of the LDP. When the House of Representatives was dissolved in 2005 for a general election on the issue of postal privatization, he was responsible for fielding the so-called “assassin” candidates. With the LDP losing in certain single-seat constituencies in the recent House of Councillors election and uncertainty about the political base of junior Lower House members serving their first or second terms, it is rumored that Nikai, who has the reputation of being a tough and capable pair of hands in dealing with elections, will also work on election campaign strategy.
Nikai is also a politician who advocates certain unique policies, such as improvement of relations with China and generous fiscal spending. Although Abe’s predominance in the LDP will remain unchanged, the appointment of Nikai, “who is capable of both managing Diet affairs and presiding over election campaigns, may result in the concentration of power, which will weaken the power of other officials relatively.” His replacement of Tanigaki, who had withheld his own opinions, may change the relationship between the Kantei and the LDP. (Slightly abridged)