BY ERIC JOHNSTON, STAFF WRITER
OSAKA – He has been dubbed the kingmaker and the shadow shogun, the man who used his tremendous influence within the Liberal Democratic Party to quickly convince its biggest factions to back Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga as party president and, accordingly, prime minister. Though an octogenarian, he is also expected to play a key role in a new administration most likely to be headed by Suga.
On Tuesday, 81-year-old Toshihiro Nikai, who assumed the post in August 2016, became the party’s longest serving secretary-general. He took over the top spot from former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who served as LDP secretary-general from June 1965 to December 1966 and then from November 1968 to July 1971 under Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.
It was Nikai who moved quickly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom the secretary-general had strongly supported, announced late last month he would step down, just days after Abe set his own record as the nation’s longest-serving prime minister in terms of consecutive tenure in office.
Concerned about a protracted interparty struggle to replace Abe, Nikai then announced his own 47-member faction would support Suga. More importantly, he quickly convinced four other powerful factions to back Suga.
These included the 98-member faction led by Hiroyuki Hosoda (of which Abe is a member), the 54-member faction led by Finance Minister Taro Aso, the 54-member faction led by Wataru Takeshita and a small faction of 11 members led by Nobuteru Ishihara.
The 19-member faction led by Shigeru Ishiba, a trenchant critic of Abe, and the 47 member Kishida faction, led by LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, who has long coveted the LDP presidency but is not popular with the public, have endorsed their leaders in the race.
Experts say it was key that the Aso faction agreed with Nikai to back Suga, as Aso and Nikai don’t always see eye-to-eye.
“Nikai was decisive, and the fact that the Aso faction decided to support Suga, despite supposedly not being close to him, is also extremely critical (for Suga’s overwhelming support),” says Jun Iio, a professor and political expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
In addition to securing the support of major factions, Nikai used his authority as secretary-general to force a presidential election in which only the 47 prefectural chapters, with three votes each, and LDP parliamentary members will cast ballots. While permissible within the LDP’s current rules regarding voting in the case of an emergency, the approach denies other party members the right to vote, including those who may prefer candidates other than Suga.
Once Suga wins the party presidency and forms his Cabinet, other experts see Nikai continuing to remain in his current position.
“There’s a high possibility Suga will retain Nikai as secretary-general and that he will continue to remain as strong as he was under Abe,” says veteran political journalist and commentator Shiro Tazaki.
Nikai’s influence on a Suga administration’s economic policies and approach toward China will be felt, Tazaki adds.
Nikai has long been considered to be one of the party’s most pro-China members. Suga, who has no major foreign policy experience, is expected to tap into Nikai’s extensive personal connections and experience with Beijing in formulating his own policies towards China.
But despite Nikai’s leadership in rallying the major factions to his preferred choice, Suga, once prime minister, is unlikely to form a Cabinet of mostly Nikai faction loyalists.
“The power balance within the factions will continue to be maintained, and the Nikai faction hasn’t gained a lot of new members,” Tazaki notes.
Nikai has proved especially resilient over the past year. In August and early September 2019, media reports indicated that in a shake-up of party leadership set for that month, whether Abe would keep Nikai in his post was in doubt.
However, Nikai lobbied hard and remained.
In addition to guiding the LDP to election victories, Nikai was a strong Abe supporter who helped revise LDP rules allowing Abe to run for a third term in 2018, also hinting that he would have supported Abe for a fourth term.
Loyalty and a strong ability to read and react to the political winds are two keys to Nikai’s success, experts say. His expertise is not in specific policy measures, or providing media sound bites or social media clickbait. Rather, his skills are in human relations and reading people.
Iio says that, due to generational changes within the political world and the way the LDP is structured, as well as the way modern campaigns are conducted, there are fewer opportunities within the LDP to train politicians on how to develop and use personal relations in the ways that Nikai has mastered.
This is partly because of Nikai’s own past experience, in which he left the LDP for a small opposition party in 1993 but returned in 2003, and was forced to work extra hard to regain everyone’s trust. Iio says it made him more sympathetic and a better observer of people, with a good sense of what they want and how to deal with them.
“There is an air of the Showa Era (1926-89) about Nikai. But his abilities with personal relationships are also, to a certain extent, necessary today,” says Iio. “He has power because there are now fewer people with those same abilities. In the past, compared to other secretaries-general, I don’t think he would be seen as particularly better.”
Nikai enjoys good relations with LDP coalition partner Komeito as well, unlike more conservative members of the LDP who don’t like Komeito’s cautious stance on revising the Constitution — a key goal of Abe and his allies. Nikai is expected to continue to serve as a bridge between the two parties under a Suga administration.
But Nikai’s various personal relationships could also prove problematic for Suga once his administration begins.
Other LDP members are angry that Nikai sent ¥150 million in funding for Anri Kawai’s campaign in the 2019 Upper House election.
Kawai won, but she and her husband, former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, were arrested in June on vote-buying allegations. Katsuyuki resigned as Justice Minister in October 2019 but remains in the Diet. His wife will likely lose her seat, creating more political headaches for Suga and Nikai.
Despite the Kawai scandal, and despite complaints within the LDP about the way Nikai forced the presidential election to limit voting to parliamentary members and prefectural chapters only, he remains unlikely to lose his position any time soon, barring a health emergency or a fresh scandal directly implicating him and the Suga administration far more than the Kawai scandal has done so far.
At the moment, it appears only a major loss by the LDP at the polls in the next general election could force the elder kingmaker of Japanese politics to finally relinquish his crown.