The Liberal Democratic Party’s intraparty faction led by Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso held a workshop at a hotel in Yokohama City on July 26. During the workshop, the 77-year-old Aso did not stress his support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, who is seeking a third consecutive term as LDP president. Instead, he underscored his cherished idea of having two largest factions within the LDP.
Aso said: “We have to create a mechanism which allows a change of the government within the party. We have been in a situation where we can hardly see the emergence of responsible opposition parties.”
He suggests that the LDP’s two largest factions should continue a “pseudo-government changeover” as the struggling opposition bloc is making the introduction of a two-party system less likely. A close aide to Aso took what he said as a “declaration of his intention to lead the post-Abe era on the basic assumption that he supports the prime minister.”
Aso’s faction used to be small, with fewer than 20 members. But it merged with a faction led by Akiko Santo in July 2017, making it the second-largest faction within the LDP with a membership of 59. Aso, who added numerical backing to his No. 2 post in the government, flaunts his presence, saying, “I’ll play a very central role in supporting the government.”
Aso is already looking beyond Abe’s third term as LDP president.
On the night of July 27, Aso dined with LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, 79, at a Japanese restaurant in a hotel in Tokyo’s Kioicho district. Senior members of Aso’s and Nikai’s factions were also present. They exchanged views on the idea of launching a joint election campaign headquarters by three pro-Abe factions — a faction led by Hiroyuki Hosoda, the Aso faction, and the Nikai faction.
When the conversation moved on to LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, 61, who on July 24 announced his decision not to run in the party leadership election, Aso said coldly, “It looks like he has missed the game.” Kishida also indicated his intention to support Abe. But Aso is negative about the idea of adding the Kishida faction to the joint election headquarters, saying, “The three factions have already been firmly solidified.”
Aso is hard on the Kishida faction, bearing in mind cabinet and party posts after the presidential race. Four out of the 19 ministers now belong to the Kishida faction, more than any other faction. The Aso faction has now become larger than before. As a result, many of its members are waiting for cabinet posts, and it wants to deprive the Kishida faction of its cabinet posts. Each of the factions is already struggling for a limited number of cabinet posts.
Another focus is on how to treat Aso. In the wake of the Finance Ministry’s falsification of documents and a sexual harassment scandal involving its top bureaucrat, not only the opposition bloc but also some in the ruling bloc argue that Aso is responsible for these issues. But Abe continued to protect Aso, saying they share “the same destiny in the government.” Aso is now in high spirits and says, “It’s my duty to support the Abe government for the sake of Japan,” giving no indication of resigning. He even met with Abe at the prime minister’s private residence on the night of July 31.
Abe often mentions “three requirements to become a prime minister” — (1) having never left the LDP, (2) a non-leftist, and (3) strong enough to win elections. His words hint at his desire to exert influence on selecting a post-Abe candidate for the party presidency.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono, 55, whom Aso expects to succeed his faction, is one of the people who meet the three requirements. The foreign minister, with a good command of English, is boosting his presence, having visited more than 40 countries in less than a year. Aso believes, “A faction is like a team. I need to train up not only Taro Kono but also people who support him.”
Aso has not given up his long-held plan to turn Kochikai into a big faction. If his faction merges with the 48-member Kishida faction, which was also descended from the Kochikai, it can outnumber the 94-member Hosoda faction as the largest LDP faction to make the two largest factions. Aso whispers to people close to him: “If Kishida joins me, he will also get support from Abe and definitely be able to become a prime minister.”
Aso is supporting Abe but also looking beyond his third term as LDP president. The upcoming LDP presidential race will be a milestone for Aso to strengthen his position as a kingmaker.