State of LDP Factions / Not a Group, but Faction-less Members Align in Support of Compatriot Suga

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Liberal Democratic Party President Yoshihide Suga sits on the president’s chair at LDP headquarters in Tokyo on Sept. 14.

This is the seventh and final installment in a series examining the current state of the Liberal Democratic Party by looking at factions that were in the spotlight during the party’s presidential election this year.

The navy-blue suit which the Ganesha no Kai, a group of 15 young members of the House of Representatives with no faction affiliation, had made for Yoshihide Suga to commemorate his becoming a prime minister has a special personal touch.

Embroidered in blue thread in the lining is “The 99th Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.”

Immediately after the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election, the group placed the order at Suga’s favorite tailor. They plan to present it to Suga shortly.

Suga has become, in effect, the first-ever LDP president with no faction affiliation since the party was founded. Within the party, however, there are a number of informal groups of Diet members who revere Suga, perhaps none more than the Ganesha no Kai, which takes its name from a Hindu deity.

For the past two years, just like factions within the party, the group has met regularly for lunch every Thursday. It is tightly united behind Suga, saying, “Even if his approval rating drops to 0%, Mr. Suga has our support.” Manabu Sakai, the leader of the group, joined the Prime Minister’s Office as deputy chief Cabinet secretary.

At a lunch meeting on Nov. 26, the topic of conversation concerned dinner functions held on the eve of cherry blossom-viewing parties hosted by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “Mr. Abe must give a thorough explanation,” said one member, while another one speculated, “If it becomes a headwind, there won’t be a lower house election for the time being, right?”

Responding to worries of the adverse impact on public opinion from the antsy members, Sakai conveyed the mood at the Prime Minister’s Office: “The prime minister isn’t worried at all.”

Also, within the House of Councillors, LDP members unaffiliated with any faction but “Suga aligned” are coming to the fore.

At a gathering of 11 unaffiliated LDP upper house members at a restaurant in Kioicho in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward on the evening of Oct. 15, Suga revealed what led to his decision to run in the party presidential election.

“I was requested to enter [the race] by the prime minister,” Suga said. “I wasn’t prepared at all, but I decided I couldn’t avoid it.”

Among those there that day, Masashi Adachi, a special advisor to the prime minister, and Junko Mihara, a deputy minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, met with Suga three or four times a year prior to the presidential election. Seizing on the election, the group decided to throw its collective support behind Suga from that point, and is now considering a group name and concrete activities that it will pursue.

Nearly half of the 64 unaffiliated LDP Diet members — 47 in the lower house and 17 in the upper house — are believed to be aligned with Suga. Most are vulnerable as young or mid-ranking members within the LDP with weak bases in the electorate.

It is in the veterans with no faction affiliation that Suga had high hopes.

Four such veteran members sat at the table with Suga at a French restaurant in central Tokyo on the evening of Oct. 28. They were Seiko Noda, executive acting secretary general of the LDP, Yasukazu Hamada, former defense minister, Hachiro Okonogi, chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission, and Hiroshi Kajiyama, Economic, Trade and Industry Minister. They regaled him with their tale of joining in support of then Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiroku Kajiyama in the 1998 party presidential election.

Hamada served as the representative of legislators who nominated Suga in the LDP election. “We are not a group per se, but rather are connected as independents,” Noda said. Still they were in a position to help Suga, with Okonogi and Kajiyama backing him within the Cabinet and Noda inside the party.

Along with Kajiyama and Okonogi, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is another Cabinet member with no faction affiliation. Suga has cast a favored eye on Koizumi, who, like Suga, was elected from an electoral district in Kanagawa Prefecture. When Koizumi joined the Cabinet for the first time in September last year, it was Suga who made the recommendation to Abe, saying, “How about Shinjiro?”

In the recent LDP election, Koizumi initially revealed he would support Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform Taro Kono. Even so, Suga allowed Koizumi to keep his Cabinet post. A senior member of the party pointed out, “For Mr. Suga, Shinjiro is a trump card as an ‘unaffiliated party president candidate.'”

It is not only faction-less LDP members who support Suga. There is wide agreement in the government and ruling coalition that among the people who Prime Minister Suga trusts the most now is Hiroshi Moriyama, the chairperson of the LDP’s Diet Affairs Committee who belongs to the party’s smallest faction led by Nobuteru Ishihara.

The Diet will greatly affect the political agenda, such as the dissolution of the lower house. Moriyama, who assumed his current post in August 2017, has managed the Diet affairs as the opposition parties continue their attacks over scandals linked to school operator Moritomo Gakuen and the Kake Educational Institution, both of which involved then Prime Minister Abe.

Moriyama started in local politics and worked his way up. Suga and Moriyama have much in common, and had breakfast together every week when Suga was serving as chief Cabinet secretary. Even now, they talk on the phone. “Compared with Mr. Abe’s time, complaints in the Diet have decreased,” Moriyama told Suga over the phone, to which Suga responded happily, “Is that so?”

Smallest faction wields influence

On Nov. 2, the lower house’s Budget Committee met for the first time since Suga assumed his post, using a question-and-answer format. After it ended, Moriyama said to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Sakai, “Can we have more division of roles,” an instruction aimed at reducing the burden of Suga in answering questions. Moriyama’s casual attentiveness shows his true value.

It has now been about 2-1/2 months since the launching of the Suga Cabinet in the wake of Abe’s sudden resignation. The political structure in which Abe maintained sole dominance for so long is undergoing considerable change.

The Ishihara faction, led by former Economic Revitalization Minister Nobuteru Ishihara, originated from the “Kin-Mirai Kenkyu kai (near-future study group),” a cross-factional policy group led by former Vice President of the LDP Taku Yamasaki founded in December 1998. Its formal name is “Kin-Mirai Seiji Kenkyu kai (near-future political study group).” Yamasaki belonged to the Watanabe faction led by former Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, but formed his own group following Watanabe’s death.

When Yamasaki did not run in the lower house election in 2012, Ishihara took over the chairmanship. Later, there was an exodus of such members as Akira Amari, chairperson of the Research Commission on the Tax System of the LDP, and Motoo Hayashi, acting secretary-general of the party.

There are currently only 11 members, including former Construction Minister Takeshi Noda, but in addition to the presence of Hiroshi Moriyama, it boasts a Cabinet member in Tetsushi Sakamoto, Minister for Promoting Dynamic Engagement of All Citizens. It has no members in the upper house.

At present, nearly 20% of LDP Diet members do not belong to any faction, making them the second-largest force after the Hosoda faction, the largest faction with 98 members.

During the era of the multiple-seat constituency system, when LDP candidates competed against each other in the same district, there were hardly any faction-less lawmakers in the party. But with the introduction of the single-seat constituency system and pubic subsidies to political parties, the influence of the party headquarters has overtaken that of the factions.

In the 2005 lower house election, 83 new LDP members, dubbed the “Koizumi Children,” won seats in the Diet. But partly due to the wishes of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, about 60 percent did not belong to any faction.