The LDP — 自由民主党 / 自民党 (jiyuuminshuto, abbreviated as jiminto) — was formed out of an alliance between two rival parties in 1955, and throughout its history it has been a patchwork of factions, clubs, and policy tribes (zoku) and has encompassed a broad range of ideologies. For most of its history, factions have been paramount in the selection of premiers and cabinet ministers, but following the turmoil of the 1990s and the ascent of Koizumi Junichiro, who promised to destroy the LDP, the factions were seen to be in terminal decline.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the factions may be greatly exaggerated.

I am referring to this article in the Yomiuri Shimbun on the creation of a new faction by Foreign Minister Aso Taro.

To indulge in a bit of “Jimintology,” a close cousin of that dormant science of Kremlinology (although that seems to have picked up in recent months), I would like to speculate as to the reasons why Aso would form a faction now, despite the prevailing trend supposedly being against factions:

  • The factions strike back: Aso’s move is particularly interesting in light of the recent rejection by the LDP of Abe’s proposed reform of funds for road construction and the disposal of the gasoline tax, and, in general, Abe’s declining popularity. In politics, as in science, nature abhors a vacuum, and Abe’s tenure has been characterized, by, if anything, a vacuum. In light of his failure to present and move an agenda and enforce discipline on the LDP, the factions and policy tribes appear to have moved to fill the void created by the lack of leadership. As such, Aso may just be trying to get in on the action. In the Yomiuri article, Aso is quoted as saying that he hopes the faction will be able to compete strongly in the LDP’s leadership competition in the future. Leading me to my second point, which is…
  • Abe’s declining popularity: It seems a little early to begin discussing Abe’s succession, unless of course LDP chiefs are convinced that Abe doesn’t have much time left in his tenure. This may be a not-so-subtle vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, Aso’s claims to support him notwithstanding. So, connecting back to my first point, this may be a way for Aso to prepare himself for the next leadership race, which, at this moment would be wide open, since there doesn’t appear to be an heir apparent as Abe was for Koizumi.
  • Abe plays the game: Lastly, and this is pure speculation, Aso could be acting under Abe’s orders, who, in the face of declining popularity, perhaps would like to metamorphose surreptitiously from a prime minister without a faction to one at the head of an elite faction.

I don’t know which, if any, of these options is right. It may well be some combination of the three. What I do know is that an LDP once again in the grip of the factions would be bad for the LDP, and bad for Japan.

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