LDP Factions Prone to Collapse When Membership Exceeds 100; Abe Faction’s Funds Scandal Downfall Seems to Prove Rule

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at the party organized by the Abe faction on May 17, 2022.

Once praised as the “backbone” of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Abe faction has become the biggest casualty of the party’s hidden funds scandal.

Although no one knows what the future holds — especially in politics — the rapid fall from grace of the Abe faction, officially called the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai, has been truly astonishing.

Until recently, it had the biggest presence in the LDP. The Abe faction probably reached its peak on May 17, 2022, when it held a fundraising party at a luxury hotel in Tokyo.

“You are the strongest policy group and the backbone of our party.”

So said an admiring Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, also the LDP president, who was a guest of honor at the party. The approximately 2,800 people in attendance erupted in applause. Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP secretary general and leader of the Motegi faction, praised the excitement in the hall, saying, “It was like an LDP convention.”

At the time, the faction was led by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had been the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s constitutional history. He stepped down from the top government post in September 2020, after his chronic ulcerative colitis worsened. However, his health later improved, and in November 2021 he took over as factional chairman with full responsibility.

Abe retained great influence as Kishida’s political guardian. He was effervescent at the party, explaining that the number of members belonging to his faction had grown to 94 at the time. He emphasized, “I will firmly support the Kishida administration in all situations and places.”

The turning point for the faction was, of course, Abe’s death. Two months after this party, Abe was murdered. The huge faction lost its central axis and began to spin into confusion.

There is a common belief in Japanese political circles that a faction splits when it grows to over 100 members.

In fact, the Tanaka faction led by former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka once had 140 members, but in 1987 it split up into groups including the Takeshita faction led by former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. In 1992, when there were nearly 110 members in the Takeshita faction, Ichiro Ozawa and his group broke away.

There is no better way to wield the power of numbers than to have many members. However, the larger the faction, the more difficult it becomes to maintain unity. If a faction continuously holds power in the party for a long time, it may become arrogant and careless.

Starting in 2000, the Abe faction produced four prime ministers: Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda and Abe himself. Having been an unrivaled power in the LDP, it has yet to become an exception to this rule.

The number of members of the faction reached exactly 100 in April 2023, but Abe’s successor as chairman was never decided because there was no popularly agreed-upon candidate, and the group has become increasingly unsettled over choosing new leadership. Some members of other factions have even mocked them as “sheep without a shepherd.”

The difficulties were compounded by the hidden funds issue, which erupted into public view after apparently going on for more than 20 years. It seems to have been common practice within the Abe faction — and some other LDP factions — to assign members sales quotas for fundraising party tickets, and then to give the proceeds in excess of that quota to the lawmakers as unreported funds.

Former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, former LDP Policy Research Council Chairperson Koichi Hagiuda and other Abe faction members resigned from their positions in the government and the party. The faction was unable to come up with a coherent response to the problem and was ultimately forced to dissolve rather than divide.

Even after the investigation by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office was brought to a close, the responsibility of former Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Ryu Shionoya, who chairs the faction, and other senior members continues to be questioned within the LDP. One young Diet member even lamented, “It has become difficult for me to say publicly that I was a member.”

In fact, before his death, Abe had privately stated his intention to abolish the kickbacks of income from LDP events, starting with the 2022 party.

However, the “Abe faction without Abe” continued the secret channeling of funds to its members, and the opportunity to correct the wrongdoing was ultimately lost.

It is interesting that Mori, who took the stage after Abe at the 2022 party, gave an exhortation that seemed to accurately describe what was to follow.

“The most dangerous time for factions is when there are only a few people left to reach 100,” he said. “Many underestimated the risk and have perished.”

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Shuhei Kuromi

Kuromi is a deputy editor in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.