On the evening of July 18, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Nikai invited Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai to his hotel room in Washington. Cui was busy handling the U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, but soon after he learned of Nikai’s visit to the U.S., he rushed to meet him. “I deeply admire your long-year dedication to the improvement of the Japan-China relationship,” Cui told Nikai, commending Nikai’s efforts to secure a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in May. Nikai nodded.
The cabinet reshuffle is scheduled to take place in two weeks, but Nikai, a linchpin of the LDP, is currently away from Japan. How can he be away at a time like this? The key to the answer is found in what happened on July 4 right after the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the Tokyo assembly election.
“Let’s focus on dealing with new challenges,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to Nikai, who visited him at the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei]. They spoke alone for about 50 minutes over lunch. What they specifically discussed remains unknown, but many conjecture that “Abe decided to retain Nikai as secretary-general at that meeting.”
The party leadership could have been pressed to take the blame for the drubbing in the Tokyo assembly election. But Nikai, who entered national politics after serving as a prefectural assembly member, had been saying from early on that “the party headquarters has never overseen prefectural assembly elections, and in these races, local chapters and candidates must make efforts.” He had predicted a party defeat and maneuvered to prevent the party leadership and the Kantei from being faulted.
There was no sign that Nikai and Abe had discussed how to deal with the Tokyo assembly election in detail. Nikai visits the Kantei on a regular basis but never asks Abe for detailed instructions on elections or Diet management. “We are in synch with each other,” he said. “I know what the prime minister is doing so I don’t need to consult with him on the details.”
Nikai’s being in sync with Abe has in fact helped Nikai raise his profile after he became LDP secretary-general in August. Soon after he assumed the post, he proposed changing the party’s by-laws to make Abe’s re-election to a third term as LDP president possible and immediately consolidated intra-party discussions. “The Prime Minister should be more grateful to me,” he said complacently.
Though Abe picks people who are close to him in political philosophy and solidifies his cabinet through selection of his “buddies,” he gives credit to politicians who stay at the opposite pole from him, such as Nikai and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. He frequently commends Nikai as “the most experienced and skillful person in the LDP.” Nikai is also committed to helping Abe stay in power for a longer period of time by claiming that “the successor of Prime Minister Abe cannot be anybody but himself.”
This autumn, Abe’s long-cherished ambition to revise the Constitution will reach a critical point. This is because he has pledged to have the party come up with a proposal before the extraordinary Diet session is convened. If this promise is not delivered, his influence may decline. Thus Nikai’s role will become indispensable, as he is skillful at consensus-building and in synch with Abe.
But his tactical savvy sometimes sparks tensions. Last week, Nikai pressed Party Ethics Committee Chairman Akiko Santo to decide on the reinstallation of independent Lower House member Kotaro Nagasaki, who belongs to his faction, to the party by arguing that “the current party leadership should have some say in the decision.” He submitted a document seeking the approval of the restoration of Nagasaki’s party membership and requested a decision by majority vote.
But out of 18 members in the Party Ethics Committee, only six sided with Nikai and approved Nagasaki’s return to the LDP. Of the six, five are citizen members. Of the politician members on the committee, only Takeo Kawamura, who belongs to the Nikai faction, voted in favor. But Nikai seems not to have given up. “We’ll deliberate on this matter again after the cabinet reshuffle,” he said. But from within the party there is discontent that “he is using his secretary-general post to expand his faction’s influence.”
While the foundation of Abe’s “uncontested grip on power” is being shaken, the LDP presidential race is scheduled to take place in September 2018. At the end of that year, Lower House members will end their four-year term. In March, when the rumor over the Diet dissolution spread, Nikai warned Abe that “the Prime Minister has the power to dissolve the Lower House for a snap election, but can you fight alone?” Nikai is in synch with Abe, but on the flip side of the coin, relations between them are tense.