By Mitsuru Sakai
A plan has emerged to form a “Grand Kochi-kai” by merging the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Kishida faction (Kochi-kai) with the Aso faction and the Tanigaki group, which used to belong to the Kochi-kai. Members of the three groups have been meeting frequently since late last year. If the merger materializes, a new faction with some 100 members, rivalling the largest faction in the party, the Hosoda faction (with 97 members), will be born. This could be viewed as a move to expand political force in anticipation of the eventual race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, a similar vision has cropped up and faded away subsequently several times in the past. This time, the interests of the three groups are also involved in a complicated manner, so the realization of the plan is up in the air.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, chair of the Kishida faction (45 members), said at a meeting of junior Diet members of the faction on the evening of Jan. 30 that “there is no need to rush” the “Grand Kochi-kai” vision and that they should just “stay put in a dignified manner.”
Kishida has indicated his desire to run as LDP president after Abe, so participants in the meeting thought that his calm reaction was “characteristic” of the normally circumspect Kishida.
Kishida has certainly told his aides that it would be “desirable” to increase faction members. He would indeed like to expand his political force ahead of the race to become LDP president and prime minister in the near future, and that is why Kishida has been making his moves. He has been approaching Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso, chairman of the Aso faction (40 members). The two had dinner several times and finally, on Dec. 21, the first gathering of senior officials of the two factions was held, where they chatted about the Kochi-kai’s breakup in 1998.
A senior Kishida faction official stressed the importance of this meeting, saying: “We will start with gatherings of small groups to lay the groundwork for the merger.” An Aso faction official also revealed that “these gatherings are being held with a future merger in mind.”
Actually, the “Grand Kochi-kai” plan is also a somewhat awkward proposition for Kishida. He owes former Secretary General Makoto Koga a debt of gratitude for naming him as faction chairman in 2012. While Koga, who is still the Kishida faction’s honorary chairman following his retirement as Diet member, does not get along with Abe, Kishida enjoys Abe’s confidence as his foreign minister. Kishida, who has ambitions to succeed Abe, is in an awkward position. He would like to avoid any discord as much as possible.
The situation is a bit different in the Aso faction. The faction has been able to expand so far with Aso as its boss. However, this faction consists of many junior lawmakers, so it has no suitable candidates to become the future president, key cabinet ministers, or members of the party leadership. Considering its future after Aso’s retirement, the “Grand Kochi-kai” plan does have its advantages. Aso stated at a faction meeting in January, “It is good for groups with similar thinking to merge and work in friendly rivalry.”
Aso has strong feelings for the Koichi-kai because the faction was founded in 1957 by former Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, a protégé of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. It is believed that Aso is keen on becoming the chairman of Kochi-kai, where he used to be a member until the time he was a mid-ranking lawmaker.
The Tanigaki group, where former Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki serves as adviser, is also making active moves. Senior officials of the group dined with their counterparts in the Aso faction last December. On Jan. 27, House of Representatives Committee on Rules and Administration Chairman Tsutomu Sato also had dinner with junior Kishida faction Lower House members serving their second or third terms.
Sato told the junior lawmakers, who are not familiar with the history of the Kochi-kai’s breakup, his memories of what happened. However, the bitter experience with internal strife in the faction over succession to the chairmanship still casts a dark shadow.
In the fight to succeed former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa as faction head in 1998, Aso bolted the faction together with former Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono, who lost to former Secretary General Koichi Kato.
Resentment between the Kishida faction and Tanigaki group is even worse. The two groups parted ways as a result of “Kato’s rebellion,” where Koichi Kato revolted against the (then) Yoshiro Mori cabinet in 2000. While the two groups merged for a time in 2008 during the time of the Koga faction, Tanigaki, then president of the LDP in opposition, clashed with Koga, who fiercely opposed his candidacy for the LDP presidency in 2012, prompting Tanigaki and his followers to leave the faction once again.
The Tanigaki group has only some 20 “genuine” members because it allows concurrent membership in other factions. In the event of a merger, the group is certain to be absorbed. While there are moves toward realizing the “Grand Kochi-kai” vision, one former cabinet minister has stated categorically that a “Grand Kochi-kai” is “not feasible.” There is no consensus in the group.
Furthermore, Tanigaki has been taking a long time to recuperate after his cycling accident last July. Although he recently sent a message while he was undergoing rehabilitation to the group’s meeting that he is “making every effort to return to Nagata-cho,” it is uncertain when that will happen. It will be difficult for the group to make a major decision without its leader.
Although the Kishida and Aso factions have no serious concerns nearly 20 years after they parted ways, a merger will give rise to the question of who should be the chairman, Kishida or Aso? At this early stage, there are already rumors about Aso serving as the faction chairman with Kishida as its candidate for LDP president. Kishida faction members have just begun their activities to push for Kishida as presidential candidate. The situation is still volatile.