The Post-Abe Liberal Democratic Party

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Publications The Post-Abe Liberal Democratic Party

Former PM Abe waved alongside PM Kishida during a House of Councillors election campaign in Hiroshima back in July 2019. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Japan lost one of its most consequential political leaders, if not the most, in the post-war period when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated during a stump speech in Nara on July 8.

Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister with a total of eight years and eight months in office. He was a strong leader both internationally and domestically. On the international front, Abe introduced a broad vision for Japan and the region called “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which the major democratic countries, including the United States, adopted. He also presented an idea of the Quad, consisting of the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan, as a means to push forward with an “Indo-Pacific Strategy.” This was the first time Western major powers adopted a strategic concept presented by a Japanese leader. Abe also passed a landmark National Security Legislation, which allows Japan’s Self Defense Forces to operate overseas for collective defense of its allies.

On the domestic front, Abe tried to revitalize the economy, which had been stagnant from more than two decades of deflation, by introducing his trademark policy of “Abenomics.”  He tried to jumpstart the economy with monetary easing from the Bank of Japan, fiscal stimulus through government spending, and structural reforms and liberalization, known as the “three arrows.” Abe also tried to unleash the economic potential of the nation’s well-educated women by opening up the traditionally male-dominated labor market and leadership positions to women. He firmly established political leadership over Japan’s bureaucracy, which has long played a significant role in leading the country. In addition, Abe oversaw Japan’s recovery from devastating events, including nuclear power accidents from the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Future of the Abe Faction

Abe resigned as the 90th prime minister of Japan on September 16, 2022, due to ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, which he had a long history of suffering from. However, he remained a powerful leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) while becoming chairman of the largest faction within the party. Abe was a force to reckon with within the party, as clearly demonstrated in the party presidency election last September. Abe endorsed Sanae Takaichi, a conservative female lawmaker, who took the steam out of Taro Kono in the first round, and thus indirectly paved way for Fumio Kishida to become party president. Since it is not customary for a former prime minister to become a factional leader, there had been speculation that Abe might have been contemplating coming back as prime minister for the third time.

At present, there is no clear leader in the Abe faction following Abe’s untimely and tragic death. Abe mentioned Koichi Hagiuda, Chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council; Hirokazu Matsuno, Chief Cabinet Secretary; Yasutoshi Nishimura, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; and Hakubun Shimomura, former Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, as possible factional candidates for prime minister. However, Abe did not seem to take succession seriously and nobody positioned him or herself to take over the faction as Abe was thought to still be ambitious about returning as prime minister. Furthermore, Abe endorsed Takaichi, who was not even a member of his faction, as a candidate in the party presidency election last September.

As a result, there has been no meaningful cooperation and coordination among Hagiuda, Matsuno, Nishimura, Shimomura, and Takaichi since Abe’s passing. Immediately following the attack on Abe, these individuals all acted independently. Shimomura went to the factional office. Nishimura went to Nara. Hagiuda went to Abe’s office. Takaichi went to the LDP headquarters. Several former aids went to Abe’s residence. Matsuno went to Nara after Abe’s death was confirmed. They acted independently as if they intentionally decided to locate themselves at various places, show their presence and power, and check on each other in the absence of Abe. Under such circumstances, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who has influence over the faction as he worked closely with Abe, told some leaders within the faction that they should seek group leadership to keep the faction united following Abe’s sudden death. However, factional leaders, such as Ryu Shionoya, Hagiuda, Matsuno, Nishimura, Shimomura, Hiroshige Seko, and Tsuyoshi Takagi, could not come to consensus as to what group leadership they should adopt. Furthermore, rank and file of the faction began to complain that they were not part of a discussion about the factional leadership.

When it became clear that it was not realistic to establish a group leadership soon, the factional leaders decided to stall by not doing anything concrete regarding the future of the Abe faction. The faction held a general meeting on July 21, 13 days after Abe’s assassination, with over 90 members in attendance. Co-Acting Chair of the faction and former Chair of the LDP General Council Ryu Shionoya asked the factional members to carry on the torch of Abe’s intention, to preserve the name of the faction as the “Abe faction,” and keep leadership positions intact until after Abe’s national funeral scheduled on September 27. Shimomura, who also served as Co-Acting Chair, and members of the faction concurred.

The future of the Abe faction with 97 members is not certain.[1] There is no clear heir apparent and the relationship among top leaders is complicated and fragile. Shionoya seemed to have no idea of what will transpire, when he said, “some kind of movements may occur after the national funeral of Abe” and “it might take a long time to choose the next leader of the faction.”[2] Abe was indeed an exceptional leader, who had political capital to generate centrifugal force for his faction. The Abe faction remains by far the largest faction within the LDP. In the absence of a legitimate successor, who can unite the faction like Abe, some see the possibility that the Abe faction may split into smaller factions when leaders begin to openly fight to take  leadership of the faction.

Implications for Prime Minister Kishida

Abe’s sudden death presents Prime Minister Kishida a completely new domestic political reality, which he must deal with as the leader of the LDP.

First, Kishida must run inside politics of the LDP without Abe’s presence. Professor Takashi Mikuriya referred to Abe’s presence as “counter axis,” which actually helped Kishida shape his policies and determine personnel appointments by balancing conservatives led by Abe.[3] While Kishida’s political conviction is different from Abe’s, Kishida has achieved a political and power balance with Abe-led conservatives within the LDP , due to his close friendship with Abe and their shared sense of comradery. Abe and Kishida were first elected to the Lower House in the same cohort in 1993 when the LDP lost its position as the ruling party for the first time in 38 years. Since Kishida does not have Abe as a “counter axis” anymore, Kishida must now present his own visions and core policies. This is particularly important in national security policies, as Japan is expected to express its mid to long-term national security strategies towards the end of this year in three strategic documents—the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), and the Medium Term Defense Program (MTDP).

Second, Kishida must prevent instability and confusion within the LDP arising from fierce infights among ambitious leaders such as Hagiuda, Matsuno, Nishimura, and Shimomura. Unfortunately, none of these hopeful leaders have close followers large enough to take control of the entire Abe faction. There is a large number of relatively young lawmakers elected after Abe became prime minister for the second time. So-called “Abe children,” who were guided by and loyal to Abe, may not fit well in the faction which just lost its prominent leader Abe. With fragmented leaders, and rank and files, there is even possibility of the largest faction within the LDP breaking apart, which is a nightmarish scenario for Kishida, who leads the fourth largest faction within the party. Kishida met with Hagiuda for more than an hour following Abe’s assassination, to exchange views on the future of the Abe faction. Unfortunately, Kishida has limited influence and leverage over the future of the Abe faction.

Third, Kishida now must face pressure from conservatives within the LDP party and other patriotic political organizations, such as Nippon Kaigi. Abe was regarded as conservative and patriotic, arising from the fact that he supported elimination of jigyakushikan, a self-deprecating view of history, respect for the national flag and anthem, and Constitutional revision. But Abe was pragmatic, as well. As a result, he took measured approaches to issues, which there was strong opposition to, such as increasing the defense budget and revising the Constitution, all while managing pressure from ultra-right groups. While Abe actively promoted a strong national security stance and strategy, such as a more aggressive approach to defending Taiwan and put pressure on Kishida on these issues, at the same time, Abe functioned as a kind of buffer for Kishida. In effect, Kishida was able to deal with ultra-right groups through Abe. Since Abe is gone now, Kishida must deal with the ultra-conservative groups himself. Kishida’s respect for Abe certainly was part of the reason why he decided to hold a national funeral for Abe. Yet, appeasement of the ultra-right wing pressure groups certainly seems to be part of the reasoning for the national funeral as well.

Since he became prime minister last October, Kishida enjoyed unusually high approval ratings for a long time, until just before the Upper House election in July. Many observers thought it was a mystery as to why Kishida maintained high approval ratings despite the fact that he had not been doing much in terms of presenting his own political visions or introducing core policies. However, Kishida’s approval ratings have shown a downward direction most likely due to an elevated level of new COVID-19 infection cases, Abe’s assassination, and Kishida’s subsequent decision to hold a national funeral for Abe. Some have mentioned the next three years could be a so-called “Golden Three Years” for Kishida to enjoy his prime ministership, as there will be no national election scheduled until 2025. However, Abe’s tragic death drastically changed power relations among LDP leaders and intraparty factional stability. In other words, Kishida no longer has the luxury of a “Golden Three Years” and must work hard to solidify his intraparty support base and to make his stance clear on important policy issues such as inflation, COVID-19 infections, a national security strategy that covers Taiwan and a defense budget increase, and Constitutional reforms.

[1] The number is as of August 1, 2022.

[2] “Donaru Jiminto Abe-ha. Kokeisha ha dare? Taisei Meguri Konranmo (Yelling Jimin and Abe. Who Are the Solids? Confusion Around the System),” NHK Seiji Magazine, August 4, 2022.

[3] “Abe Moto Shusho Jugeki Jiken. Seiji Ga Hinkon Ni Naru (General Abe’s Calligraphy Incident. Politics Becomes Poverty),” NHK Seiji Magazine, July 19, 2022.

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