By Kasai Masahiro
The political dynamics within the Liberal Democratic Party may change after the Sept. 27 state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Will the party’s largest faction formerly led by the slain leader (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai with 97 members) break up in the days ahead? This question involves various factors, such as the steep decline in public support for Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, lawmakers’ connections with the former Unification Church, the questioning of former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, the guardian of the Abe faction, by prosecutors for his alleged involvement in the bribery scandal connected with the Tokyo Olympics.
Since the death of Abe on July 8, unity within the Abe faction appears to be weakening. It retains the name “Abe faction” but has changed to a “collective leadership” structure and has decided to leave the chairmanship open for the time being. Rumor has it that the faction will consider establishing new leadership after the state funeral. In a magazine interview conducted prior to his death, Abe mentioned the names of former Minister of Education Shimomura Hakubun, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Nishimura Yasutoshi, LDP policy affairs chair Hagiuda Koichi, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Kazuhisa as faction members who could be candidates for prime minister in the future. The fact that the faction failed to choose a successor immediately after the death of its leader, however, highlights that none of the four is unanimously deemed good enough to take the place of Abe.
Ito Atsuo (74 years old), a political analyst and a former LDP staff member, describes the situation as follows: “Despite his long tenure, Abe did not do much to groom a successor. This is the main cause for the problem facing the faction today.”
The scandal involving the former Unification Church, with which Abe has had deep connections, is making the situation more chaotic. The recent survey into LDP members’ ties with the religious group revealed that 37 members of the Abe faction had some affiliation with the church. This is the largest number of any LDP faction. Of the four “post-Abe” candidates, Hagiuda and Shimomura were found to have deep connections with the church, and this will surely impact their political life going forward.
“There is a rule of thumb in the LDP that any faction with a membership of about 100 is destined to break up,” said Ito. “Membership of about 50 or 60 is the right size for a faction. Strong leadership is required if the number exceeds 100.”
Izumi Hiroshi (75 years old), a political journalist, says that “history will repeat itself.” The former head of the Jiji Press wire service’s political news department is referring here to the breakup of the Tanaka faction, which was led by former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei and was reputed to have ironclad solidarity. The faction that boasted over 140 members at its height broke up with the rebellion led by Takeshita Noboru, one of Tanaka’s henchmen. A group formed by Takeshita became the now-defunct Keiseikai in 1987 and evolved into the present-day Motegi faction.
How is Prime Minister Kishida looking at the current situation facing the Abe faction amid his flagging public support? “Kishida believes that he will be viewed well if he does not allow himself to be portrayed as a person who likes power struggles. This is an image that he tries to give the public. In fact, however, Kishida likes intraparty power struggles,” says Izumi, who spent most of his career as a political journalist covering the Kochikai (Kishida faction). He has known Kishida since his days as secretary to his father, Kishida Fumitake.
It is widely thought that Kishida is a suave politician who want to distance himself from cutthroat power games. According to Izumi, however, it is the other way around. Both Izumi and Ito think that Kishida wants the Abe faction to continue with its status quo for the time being.
In that scenario, Kishida sees former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide as the key figure. Though it is said that there continues to be discord between Suga and Kishida stemming from the fact that Kishida’s bid for the LDP presidency forced Suga to resign in the end, Kishida has been meeting with Suga on a frequent basis for advice since he came to power.
According to Ito, what Kishida dreads is the formation of a non-mainstream group between a spinoff from the Abe faction and Suga. Izumi points out that it would be beneficial for Kishida if the Abe faction gradually declined. But Kishida does not want “an immediate breakup of the faction” because that could create instability in the government.”
The Abe faction has been unrivaled since 2000, sending Mori, Koizumi Junichiro, Abe, and Fukuda to the post of prime minister. The problem is that it has few promising candidates who can succeed Kishida today, compared with other factions’ “post-Kishida” candidates, such as Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa of the Kishida faction, LDP Secretary-General Motegi Toshimitsu of the Motegi faction and Minister of Digital Transformation Kono Taro of the Aso faction.
An incident outside Nagatacho is casting a shadow on the prospects for the Abe faction: It has come to light that former Prime Minister Mori has been questioned by the Tokyo prosecutors’ special investigation squad on a voluntary basis over bribery allegations related to the Tokyo Games.
“Mori sees himself and others see him as the de facto core of the Abe faction,” says Izumi. “If something were to happen to him, the Abe faction would break into pieces.” A lawmaker from the Abe faction also points out that the faction has to rely on Mori to remain united “because we indeed have no leader.”
It is generally believed in Nagatcho that a faction splitup does not happen easily because present-day lawmakers do not have strong fundraising capabilities. Nonetheless Izumi predicts that the Abe faction will fall on very hard times. “Abe faction members knew they were supported by conservatives because of Abe. Once they find there is no benefit in staying in the faction, they will leave.” (Abridged)