Disciplinary Action a Window into Power Struggle within the LDP

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Kishida answers questions from reporters about the disciplinary action against party members in connection with the recent hidden funds scandal.

By carrying out large-scale disciplinary action against members involved in a large-scale political funds scandal, the Liberal Democratic Party hopes to mark the end of a turbulent chapter in its history. However, decisions on the disciplinary actions have revealed a power struggle among senior LDP officials, and dissatisfaction has been smoldering within the party, with some members complaining that the criteria for the punishment were ambiguous. The impact on LDP President Fumio Kishida, who is also the prime minister, remains to be seen.

The LDP’s Party Ethics Committee decided on April 4 on punishments for 39 members of the Abe and Nikai factions for their involvement in the factions’ alleged violations of the Political Funds Control Law. The punishments are the second most sweeping ever, following the case of 59 LDP members whom the party punished in 2005 for voting against then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s postal privatization bills, which had been part of the party’s election campaign pledges.

The most severe punishments were meted out to a pair of senior members of the Abe faction — former Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Ryu Shionoya and Hiroshige Seko, former secretary general for the LDP in the House of Councillors. Both were given recommendations to leave the party.

“We will recommend that those lawmakers with the heaviest responsibility leave the party,” Kishida told top party executives by phone on March 30, when talks on the disciplinary actions were reaching a critical stage. From an early stage, Kishida had already decided to punish the former Abe faction leaders who had been at the center of the institutional wrongdoing in the faction with a penalty more severe than withholding election endorsements from them. But he was hesitant to give the harsher punishment of recommendations to leave the party because he felt that such a penalty would be too serious. This is because members who leave under the cloud of such a recommendation face hurdles to later reinstatement.

However, Kishida became inclined to impose the heavier punishment, based on interviews with four top figures of the Abe faction and public opinion calling for severe punishment.

On March 26-27, Kishida, together with LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi and LDP General Council Chairperson Hiroshi Moriyama, faced Shionoya and Seko, plus former education minister Hakubun Shimomura and former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, in a hotel room in Tokyo. While Kishida took notes and asked questions, the four members uniformly replied that they had no idea how the practice of illicit kickbacks from the sale of tickets to the faction’s fundraising parties had continued despite direct instructions to stop it from former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2022 — while he was leader of the faction, and shortly before his death. One of the executives criticized the situation, saying that the four lacked a sense of responsibility for the problem.

Among the party’s executives, there was a shared understanding that someone needed to be shown the door through a recommendation to leave the party. Shionoya is a former chairperson of the faction and Seko is a former chairperson of the faction’s upper house lawmakers. Both had clear positions as senior figures and there were no objections from the executives to the recommendation to both of them to leave the party.

A sharp conflict arose among the party’s executives over the punishments of Ryota Takeda, the former secretary general of the Nikai faction, and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who had served as the Abe faction’s secretary general.

Moriyama told those around him: “What the Abe faction has done is worse than what the Nikai faction has done. Also, Mr. Nikai has announced his retirement.”

Moriyama, who is closely connected with former LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, said that Nikai would not run in the next lower house election, accepting full responsibility on behalf of the Nikai faction, and argued that Takeda’s punishment of suspension from party positions was appropriate.

LDP Vice President Taro Aso, on the other hand, questioned whether all members of the Abe faction would receive similarly lesser punishments if Shionoya retired, and called for Takeda to be suspended from party membership, which is heavier than suspension of party positions.

Aso and Takeda have an ongoing power struggle in their hometown of Fukuoka. Takeda told those around him that Aso’s comments reflected a personal grudge.

The prime minister made adjustments to Matsuno’s position by suspending him from his party posts, taking into account that he was the party’s secretary general before the revelation of the illicit kickbacks. However, there were concerns among the executives that Kishida might be seen as protecting his former subordinate.

Finally, on the morning of April 4, the prime minister decided to suspend both Takeda and Matsuno from their party positions. Koichi Hagiuda, a former chairperson of the LDP Policy Research Council who is close to Kishida, was also suspended from his party posts. One party executive lamented: “Rather than deciding on a punishment that is in line with the person and their actions, it is as if the punishment were chosen first and then they applied it to the person.”

The Abe faction voiced a series of protests against the content of the disciplinary actions, and fissures remained among party leaders. Nevertheless, those around Kishida expressed the view that it was a no-win situation, and the wounds the prime minister inflicted were the shallowest ones possible.

A former cabinet member who was punished for his actions argued that Kishida had lost the support of both the Abe and Nikai factions and that his chances of reelection in the party presidential election in September were gone, but some observers believe that the prime minister had achieved a “certain kind of victory,” if only in terms of power relations within the party. The Abe and Nikai factions, which had often played a dominant role in political affairs, were severely damaged through the punishments. Nikai, who had maintained a certain distance from the prime minister, was forced to announce his retirement.

Ichiro Ozawa, a member of the House of Representatives for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said of Kishida: “We must not underestimate him. He is a very clever man, having torn the Seiwa-kai [Abe faction] to shreds and forced Nikai to retire.”

The Kishida faction, of which Kishida was chairman, also failed to make proper records on its political fund balance sheet and its former treasurer was charged, but the prime minister was not punished. Some in the party have criticized Kishida for not taking responsibility.

On April 4, when the prime minister was asked by reporters about his responsibility, he said, “I will let the public and party members make the final decision after they have seen our political reform efforts.” This statement has led to speculation that Kishida intends to hold a general election by dissolving the House of Representatives before the end of the Diet session in June.

Kishida is seeking reelection in the LDP presidential election when his term expires in September, but there are smoldering voices within the party that he will not be reelected because the Cabinet’s approval rating has slumped so low. Therefore, there is a view that he will try to create a trend toward his reelection by dissolving the House of Representatives before the presidential election. Some in the government are cautious, saying that a significant reduction in the number of seats the party holds in the House of Representatives would make reelection in the presidential election more difficult and would not be advantageous. Still, the dissolution of the House of Representatives is a matter of the prime minister’s will.

A veteran LDP member commented: “I don’t know what Kishida is thinking anyway. I hope he will avoid dissolving the lower house, but if he decides to do so, we won’t be able to stop him.”

In addition to the persistent headwinds, the LDP is riven by suspicion and doubt. If the power struggle heats up in anticipation of the presidential election, there is a fear that public opinion will drift further away from the party. Will he be able to regain a stable base of power to tackle domestic and international challenges head-on? The prime minister is facing a critical moment.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Michitaka Kaiya

Kaiya is a staff writer in the Political News Department of The Yomiuri Shimbun.