By Sawada Daisuke
When the Upper House election officially kicked off on June 22, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district. Giving a campaign speech for a Liberal Democratic Party candidate, he stressed the need for compiling a second supplementary budget for the current fiscal year after the election.
A junior lawmaker close to Abe calls for the allocation of around 50 trillion yen from state coffers. Abe leads the largest faction (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai) in the LDP and favors aggressive fiscal spending. This could trigger a flare-up with Prime Minister Kishida, an advocate of fiscal integrity.
Abe vs. Kishida
Abe has remained supportive of Kishida since he came into office last October, but there were several occasions when tensions between the two escalated. One conspicuous example is their conflict over defense spending and the retirement of Administrative Vice Minister for Defense Shimada Kazuhisa. The division could run deep as the government is set to begin the work of revising the nation’s three key strategic documents on foreign policy and national security toward the year end.
Abe, for his part, has been frequently dining with the party’s leadership figures of late, such as LDP Vice-President Aso Taro and Secretary-General Motegi Toshimitsu, as well as the party’s non-mainstream heavyweights, including former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and former Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro. Suga maintains a somewhat delicate relationship with Kishida, as he was forced to step down as prime minister after a year in office partially due to Kishida’s announcement of his bid for the LDP presidency.
A lawmaker close to Kishida deciphers Abe’s moves, conjecturing that “he’ll attempt to influence personnel reshuffles in the cabinet and party leadership after summer by involving the party’s mainstream and non-mainstream members.” In fact, Abe is telling people close to him that “I want posts commensurate with our strength.” What he has in mind is to increase the number of cabinet posts given to his faction members from the current four in addition to a key leadership post in the party – either secretary-general, policy affairs chief or general affairs chief. “He is not getting anxious, but he may fear that Kishida may move to remove his influence,” says a senior party member.
Suga – expectation grow to create a faction
Meanwhile, Suga was in Yokohama on June 22 to campaign for an LDP candidate close to him. As his achievements such as successfully rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations nationwide while in office are getting renewed recognition, many people gather to listen to Suga.
“If I’m asked, I’m happy to go anywhere to assist a candidate as much as possible.” He is campaigning even for people who are not close to him. Within the LDP, there are about 30 pro-Suga lawmakers. One close aide of Suga’s says, “Suga cannot remain outside the mainstream forever,” hoping that [Kishida] will give Suga a key post in addition to favorably treating those close to Suga in a personnel reshuffle. Suga is expected to launch a study group after the election, and some people want it to be turned into a faction or political group as well.
Aso holds the key in post-Kishida leadership race
Aso, the leader of the Aso faction (Shisuikai), is busy visiting the five UH members of his faction, who are seeking reelection, and new members, who are not elected to office but given a special membership status, every day. On June 24, he was in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, to campaign for a rookie faction candidate, who is vying for three seats up for election in the Hokkaido electoral district.
Aso identifies himself as the “core member of the party’s core leadership.” He often dines with Kishida and Motegi, and also maintains good personal ties with Abe. Rumor once had it that he is not on good terms with Suga, but he has been meeting with Suga for dinner twice a week since late May, leaving the impression that he has successfully mended his ties with Suga.
Of late, Aso is telling to people close to him that he is at the nexus of the party’s heavyweights and playing an instrumental role in bringing them together.
Aso holds the key in the “post-Kishida” leadership race. He envisages creating a “grand Kochikai” by joining hands with the Kishida faction, which shares roots with the Aso faction. Meanwhile, he enjoys strong connections with Abe, and inside his faction, Kono Taro, the head of the party’s public relations headquarters, is showing his ambition to succeed Kishida.
Abe does not endorse Kono as a post-Kishida candidate, but Suga has trust in Kono and cherishes him as the next leader. Inside the Aso faction, Kono is popular with quite a few middle-ranking and junior lawmakers. Aso does not object to Kono’s becoming prime minister in the future, but given his instrumental role in building party solidarity in support of the Kishida government, Kono could become a factor that sets off political turmoil.
Due to his great popularity, demand for Kono as a campaign speaker is strong in many electoral districts, and he is busy making visits to places where LDP candidates are facing uphill battles. If Kono’s influence grows, the faction may once again be divided in the next presidential race. Aso may be forced to take a difficult decision if that happens.
Motegi needs to take a chance at some point of time
The outcome of the Upper House race will become crucial to Motegi as well, as this is the first national election campaign for him to steer as the party’s secretary-general. “For Motegi to emerge as a strong post-Kishida candidate, he must make sure candidates who are running from his faction retain their seats and send as many rookies as possible to the Upper House,” said a person from the Motegi faction (Heisei Kenkyukai).
Speculation is strong within the LDP that Motegi will continue to serve as secretary-general after the Upper House race. But if Kishida stays in power longer, the chances of Motegi, who is 66 years old, becoming the next prime minister will shrink. It is important for him to make friends while he is secretary-general, but there is an opinion within the LDP that Motegi “must take a chance at some point in time, otherwise it will become more difficult for him to seek the premiership because of his age.” (Abridged)