On Aug. 31, more than a dozen young Diet members visited the office of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in the National Diet Building. They belonged to the “Ganesha Group,” made up of younger lawmakers without factional affiliation who have served in the Diet less than four terms. Many of them didn’t inherit political districts from family members and lack a strong support base. Manabu Sakai, former senior vice-minister of internal affairs and communications, urged Suga to run for the party presidency, saying, “Give us the opportunity to return your favors.” Talking to the press, Parliamentary Vice-Minister of Defense Tomohiro Yamamoto emphasized: “Without faction affiliation, we had no peers and lacked clout. Suga took us under his wing.”
For the past ten years or so, Suga himself has not belonged to any faction. That should have translated to a weak support base for him in the party. Instead, his influence is growing steadily. This is because Suga has skillfully executed the power of the chief cabinet secretary to shuffle personnel in the administration for the last 92 months.
The second Abe administration appointed non-faction members with close ties to Suga to the three highest ranks in the ministries one after another. Because factional endorsements had been seen as an important factor in the appointments, the “Suga appointments” stood out.
Two first-time cabinet members were appointed “by Suga’s discretion” in the cabinet shuffle of 2017. Those were Hiroshi Kajiyama (Minister of State for Regional Revitalization) and Hachiro Okonogi (Chairman of the National Public Safety Commission).
Non-faction-affiliated former Economic Minister Kazuhide Sugawara and former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, both of whom lost their jobs due to scandals, originally obtained their first cabinet appointments through Suga’s strong support. Sugawara wrote in his blog at the time: “My appointment was only made possible through the guidance of my teacher in politics, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga.”
Suga played the key role in choosing candidates for deputy prime ministers and parliamentary vice-ministers. Contrary to expectations, he picked young, unaffiliated members such as Yamamoto and Sakai. Members who lack backing from factions joined together and formed multiple groups in Suga’s orbit to effectively function as a “Suga faction.” The Ganesha Group is one of them.
The conference on Sept. 2, where Suga expressed his intention to run for the party presidency, was hosted by Sakai. In appreciation, Suga said, “None of the people who support me with less than four terms in the Diet belong to a faction. They are the ones who have given me the power to proceed with my candidacy.”
In Kasumigaseki as well, Suga removed bureaucrats who did not cooperate in advancing his policies, a practice that further consolidated his influence.
Suga supported raising the cap on the size of contributions in the hometown tax donation program. An official who recommended setting a cap on donations by wealthy donors was derailed from an upward career path by Suga. The chief cabinet secretary also removed a commissioner of the Financial Services Agency after a year in the job because he refused to cooperate with Suga’s long-sought reform of agricultural cooperatives. The commissioner’s post was given to a confidant of Suga’s, Nobuchika Mori, who served for an unprecedented three years in the position.
Running as a non-faction member for the party presidency is not easy because a candidate’s strength is said to depend on his/her faction. Nevertheless, the “Suga avalanche” accelerates as factions rush to support him. An ex-cabinet member from a faction that backs Suga speculated: “People are likely united behind Suga because they fear reprisal otherwise.” (Slightly abridged)