July 8 marked a year since the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. The loss of the longest-serving leader in the postwar era and a political giant was felt throughout the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, but was felt most acutely by the right-wing of the faction, especially the Seiwakai faction that he led. Even after stepping down as prime minister, Abe’s presence endured as the figure able to pressure the more center-leaning, dovish Kishida Cabinet’s policy toward greater accommodation with the party’s conservatives.
Abe’s passing created a vacuum in the party’s right wing and ushered in the relative decline of its bargaining power. Some have even pointed out that policies like the LGBT bill would not have passed if Abe were alive – given the staunch opposition of the faction’s traditional conservative support base to this and other Kishida priorities, the relative vacuum of power in the LDP’s right wing has even cast doubt as to whether the party could hold on to the conservative base.
Filling the vacuum created by Abe’s departure is not straightforward. Two key indicators of how any possible succession plan will move forward are the cabinet reshuffle expected by mid-September and the tentative general assembly of the Abe faction on August 17 along with the retreat in Karuizawa, Nagano, from August 20-21. These events will reveal which (and more important whose) ideas prevail — and maybe even whether the decisions end up sowing the seeds of destruction for the faction and potentially the party’s status quo dynamics.
Cracks in the cohesion of the Abe faction
The Abe faction is by far the largest presence in the LDP, currently standing at around double the size of the second and third largest factions. However, a herd without a sense of direction is not nearly as effective as one with a definitive leader. Since Abe’s passing, the faction dodged the succession question by installing a temporary seven-man collective leadership structure to avoid repeating history and rupturing the faction.
Tensions have surfaced since then, as the one year mark since Abe’s assassination drew closer. On the one hand, former prime minister and faction president Mori Yoshiro suggested a temporary collective caretaker system in October 2022, led by individuals who currently hold positions of power in the cabinet or party. Proponents argued that naming a single leader to fill the Abe-sized hole was unrealistic in the short-term and instead proposed a swift transition to a collective leadership structure that would enable the faction to exert its influence on policy and negotiate leadership positions with Prime Minister Kishida Fumio in a cabinet reshuffle. There has been a growing sense of urgency, especially after the party decided on June 15 to endorse Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa (Kishida faction) over Yoshida Shinji (Abe faction), Abe’s successor in his constituency, for the redistricted Yamaguchi-1 district merging Abe and Hayashi’s seat.
However, the plan was opposed during a July 6 faction meeting, where Shionoya Ryu and Shimomura Hakubun, the de facto caretakers, argued that it would be better to name a new president. To an extent, their reasoning is self-interested — both do not want to lose their current positions of power gained through their ties to Abe and have cast themselves as possible successors. Yet that idea has not garnered much support from fellow faction members given questions over their ability to advocate for faction interests within the party. Similarly, reports suggest that members with fewer than four terms in office, who make up more than half of the sixty Lower House faction members, want a new president rather than an oligarchical system given the difficulty of knowing where true power resides and questions about why the five decided to lead without consulting the rest of the faction.
Other alternative structures proposed include a co-president system with Nishimura, Hagiuda, and Seko at the helm, or a separated system in which Hagiuda would take the faction presidency and Nishimura take the candidacy for party president given his ambitions and past experience running for the presidency. But none have proven decisive in the absence of a clear frontrunner and the fact that the faction is not as monolithic as it seems given the ideological differences between Abe branch and Fukuda branch members, as well as a Lower House-Upper House divide in which neither side would be willing to give the other disproportionate power in deciding the new structure.
So far, the Abe faction’s relative decline in power has been a benefit for Kishida. For one, it has given him the opportunity to pursue policies unpopular among Abe-wing conservatives like tax hikes to finance defense spending, which would have been opposed outright by Abe, who advocated for issuing JGB bonds instead. Though there has been significant pushback led particularly by faction member and policy chief Hagiuda through the special mission committee, the question today is not whether the tax hike will happen but when.
Second, Kishida has been able to drive a wedge between faction members by pitting them against each other through the use of cabinet and party leadership positions. This has enabled him to keep the most conservative faction at arms length and prevent a revival of the “power of numbers”, which could seriously derail the prime minister’s policy priorities. Kishida essentially holds the power over promotion and demotion — or relevancy and irrelevancy — in his hands. For instance, he can elect to keep ambitious lawmakers like Nishimura and Seko in power to preemptively close off any opportunities to criticize him before the party presidential election. Alternatively, he can isolate certain lawmakers by taking them off key leadership positions and rendering them irrelevant to the party and its local members (like Ishiba Shigeru).
Given the absence of a strong successor, Kishida can feed into potential successors’ anxieties and suspicions for other candidates by strategically playing favorites or not playing favorites, preventing the emergence of a united Abe faction and eliminating the possibility of a strong contender standing in his way in September 2024.
But this factional weakness could also eventually turn into a headache as the presidential election draws near. There is always a possibility that factional in-fighting spills over to the party and policymaking given that the relative balance of power between the conservative and moderate poles (Abe and Kishida) could be broken for good with the splintering of the Abe faction. In addition, an undisciplined and divided faction could opt for more open criticism of the prime minister to drag him down and usher in a more accommodating presidential candidate. The nightmare scenario for Kishida’s reelection plans would be if the faction members agreed on replacing him despite disagreeing on who should replace him (recall how Kono lost to Kishida despite a handful of Abe faction members supporting Takaichi over Kishida).
In any case, the fate of Abe’s faction following his assassination is a grim reminder of the difficulty of replacing a charismatic leader without a clear succession plan. The faction decided at its general assembly on August 17 to establish an executive board with Shionoya at the helm, supported by the “gang of five” and other former Cabinet ministers. Though they reached an agreement, the challenge will likely intensify as the 100-strong faction attempts to avoid splintering amid a clash of personal interests and ideological differences. The decline in faction cohesion and therefore power has provided Kishida with room to pursue his own policies but has also come with considerable challenges, such as instability of party power dynamics and coordination issues with Komeito, which had not surfaced while Abe facilitated communication through the likes of ex-Secretary-General Nikai Toshihiro and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide in his Cabinet and party leadership.
Yet, politics moves on. The current succession struggle within Abe’s right-wing faction threatens to destabilize internal politics and will have long-lasting effects on the power dynamics of both intra- and inter-party engagements. How the faction and the party deal with the succession will have far-reaching implications on the future of Japanese politics.
Rintaro Nishimura is an analyst with the Japan practice at The Asia Group and a first-year graduate student in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service. He writes on international relations in Northeast Asia, mostly focusing on Japanese foreign and security policy. A native of Tokyo, Japan, his articles have appeared in the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs, The National Interest, The Diplomat, and Northeastern University Political Review. His current research interests are focused on Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the geoeconomics of the region. He can be found on Twitter (@RinNishimura) and http://rintaronishimura.com