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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 22, 2003)

Koizumi's Re-election Strikes Another Blow at Factional Politics

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

The surging tide propelling Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi towards re-election as his party's president is also sweeping away some of his most vocal critics. For the last two weeks, Japan's normally slow-flowing political waters have been transformed into a treacherous tempest that threatens to capsize an already listing party power-structure.

In the eye of the raging storm is the battle for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). As the party is the dominant force in Japan's governing coalition, its leader automatically assumes the office of prime minister. Thus, the stakes in the unfolding high-seas drama are the political direction of the nation.

Three contenders have stepped aboard to take on Prime Minister Koizumi, whose current term as LDP president is expiring. Behind this trio stand some of Koizumi's most formidable foes. Chief among them is the embittered LDP powerbroker Hiromu Nonaka, a former secretary general of the LDP. He has publicly vowed to sink the Koizumi premiership. With all the obsessive finality of Herman Melville's doomed Captain Ahab, Nonaka recently declared that his political life was over and that his one remaining ambition was scupper Koizumi's re-election.

For months it has been an almost foregone conclusion that Koizumi would retain the LDP presidency and extend his grip on the premiership for an additional three years. His masterful use of the international stage to project an image of dynamic leadership has kept his popularity ratings high and shielded him from harsh LDP critics like Nonaka and former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Shizuka Kamei, who is standing against Koizumi.

Despite months of mutinous rumours and mutterings that the PM's opponents would unite behind a single candidate, all Byzantine plots have sunk without trace. Just as the enormity of the giant whale in Melville's novel scared off attacks from sane whaling captains, Koizumi's commanding lead in the opinion polls sapped the courage of all but the most die-hard of opponents. The majority of lawmakers opposing Koizumi's policies realized that no matter how much they disagreed with him, to remove such a popular leader would be political suicide.

The failure of the anti-Koizumi factions to thrust a dagger in their enemy's breast has highlighted their declining influence. Traditionally, to win the LDP presidency and become prime minister required the backing of various factions within the party. Before changes to the electoral system in 1994, LDP faction leaders' power sprang from their ability to get their members re-elected. They achieved this by providing them with financial resources to campaign in the former multi-seat constituencies. However, a switch from the unwieldy multi-seat system to a more streamline single-seat constituency greatly diminished this role, and the clout of the faction leaders gradually waned.

The election of Koizumi as party president in April 2001 marked another significant juncture. Koizumi captured the presidency by casting himself as the outsider who was beholden to no single faction. This strategy found great appeal with the rank-and-file party members whose votes gave Koizumi a landslide victory. Koizumi became the first LDP prime minister not to deal out Cabinet posts along factional lines. This policy infuriated the faction chiefs and further undermined their influence.

In the 2001 race Koizumi pledged to smash factional power, his re-election will greatly boost his chance of ultimately achieving this objective. The current presidential race has inflicted massive damage on several anti-Koizumi groupings. The hundred-strong faction nominally led by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has been virtually ripped apart by tensions over Koizumi's re-election. Although the faction is fielding its own candidate, Takao Fujii, almost all its forty-two upper house members are backing Koizumi as is the acting faction-head, Kanezo Muraoka.

The fifty-one member faction led by Mitsuo Horiuchi, chairman of the LDP's General Council, failed to field a candidate. Many members will probably vote for Koizumi as ending up at the bottom of the ocean with Nonaka is not an especially appealing prospect.

In the final days of the campaign, Nonaka's determined efforts to hold back the Koizumi tide have looked as hopeless as Captain Ahab's attempt to harpoon the giant whale Moby-Dick. Even Nonaka's preferred presidential candidate, Takao Fujii, moderated his criticisms of Koizumi and began to look like a reluctant Jonah hoping not to be swallowed by the oncoming whale.

While Koizumi's re-election will not end factional politics in Japan, it does mark a further curbing of the influence these groups once wielded. This should alter the underlying dynamics of the political decision making process, placing more power in the hands of the prime minister. The fallout from the leadership campaign will most likely lead to a reorganizing of those factions that opposed the PM and some will probably implode. Koizumi is unlikely to shed any tears over this development, for as D.H. Lawrence titled his epic poem, "Whales Weep Not."


Since this article was first published Prime Minister Koizumi has comfortably won re-election as LDP party president and by an impressive margin. He soundly sank the hopes of his three challengers, capturing over 60% of the votes cast. Out of the 657 votes up for grabs, Koizumi garnered 399 or 60.7% of the total. LDP legislators were allocated 357 votes of which Koizumi received 194 (54.3%) and rank-and-file members from 47 prefectures represented 300 votes of which Koizumi captured 205 (68.3%). Koizumi overwhelmed his opponents in the prefectures being the preferred choice in 42 out of the 47 constituencies. The pretenders to the throne lagged way behind. Shizuka Kamei got a total of 139 votes or 21.2% (66 from lawmakers and 73 from party members), Takao Fujii got a total of 65 votes or 9.9% (50 from lawmakers and 15 from party members) and Masahiko Komura got a total of 54 votes or 8.2% (47 from lawmakers and 7 from party members). Koizumi's term as Party President now runs until September 2006.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 19 September 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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