The last days of Abe Shinzo

For a look at how illusory the LDP’s purported post-Fukuda unity is, Bungei Shunju has an article called “Shinzo Abe: The truth of the last three days.” (It’s published in four parts at Yahoo’s Minna no seiji site: one, two, three, and four.)

There aren’t too many surprises in the article: Aso Taro laughed in Fukuda Yasuo’s face when the latter insisted that he join the cabinet; the Aso camp is larger than officially recognized, and will continue to scheme to position Mr. Aso for the post-Fukuda era; Mr. Fukuda doesn’t particularly like Mr. Abe, in part due to the latter’s efforts to undermine Mr. Fukuda’s ideas on North Korea policy under Mr. Koizumi; Mr. Koizumi’s surprise “endorsement” of Mr. Fukuda is apparently behind the resignation of Iijima Isamu, Mr. Koizumi’s private secretary, who is antagonistic with Mr. Fukuda and only learned of his boss’s decision from the press; and Mr. Abe became progressively more decrepit in mind and body as August passed.

Who, the article asks, is the real winner?

I would say Mr. Fukuda, simply by virtue of having emerged as the prime minister, but no one comes out of this article looking particularly good. Mr. Fukuda looks like a scheming, treacherous snake full of grudges; Mr. Abe by the end is a pale shadow of himself subsisting on gruel at Keio Hospital; and the LDP looks more like the court of a Renaissance Italian city-state than a modern political party. Of course, no political party is free from vicious internal disputes and jockeying for power; take the US Democratic Party, for example. But thanks to decades of nearly uninterrupted power and grudges going back generations, LDP struggles strike me as particularly vicious and all too often hidden from the light of public scrutiny. Policy has next to nothing to do with the feuds documented by Bungei Shunju. The only policy dispute mentioned at length is over North Korea policy, and it seems to me that Mr. Fukuda was more outraged at being beaten by the young deputy chief cabinet secretary than at seeing his preferred course of action rejected.

In other words, the LDP was, is, and will always be, at heart, concerned solely with power. No leader can change that, and as long as the LDP has no principles save the pursuit of power, and as long as its leaders are those who can scheme and backstab their way to the top, the LDP will force its rivals to play by the same rules. Under Mr. Ozawa, the DPJ may be able to do that — but is it possible to surpass the LDP’s desire for power?

Of course, this means that it is a bit contrived to speak of an old and a new LDP: there is one LDP, with an unchanging purpose. Mr. Koizumi, rather than fundamentally transforming the party, may have simply given contenders for the throne some new tools, including popular support outside the party, which in the right hands can both make up for a lack of support within the party and be used as a weapon against one’s enemies, and the intensification of the “reform” theme, which makes it plausible for LDP politicians to run against their own party. And so the dynamics of intra-party competition have changed: the factions are weaker and more strapped for cash; the zoku giin don’t have the same influence over policymaking they once had; the Kantei has grown in power. But I wonder whether this transformation has had a perverse effect on intra-LDP politics, making competition for the party leadership that much more intense, because now the premiership is that much more valuable a prize.

I am also uncertain about the contemporary LDP’s crosscurrents. In the past, the party was divided along multiple fault lines: factions, policy tribes, bureaucrats versus party men, hawks versus doves. And now? The camps seem less clear cut to me, and are perhaps even more rooted in personality than ever before.

Therefore, in light of all this, I do not expect the Fukuda truce, if it even exists, to last long. The LDP’s history is one of chaos and brutal power struggles more akin to those seen in Beijing and Moscow than in Washington. As long as Japan’s voters continue to return the LDP to power, the country’s leaders will continue to be those who can survive, one way or another, the party’s internecine wars. Even after Mr. Koizumi, it is no closer to becoming a top-down, coherent political party.

2 thoughts on “The last days of Abe Shinzo

  1. Anonymous

    You make Fukuda look as bad as Aso but I have to disagree here. Abe appeared to me from the beginning as too immature and weak to sustain his position as prime minister. Ozawa as you know is an old LDP power broker from way back so it makes little sense to look to him for any political enlightenment from the DPJ. There are few redeeming qualities in Japanese politics to be sure but I still contend that the LDP factions as vicious as they may be served a role as a primitive kind of checks and balances within the LDP.


  2. It\’s not me who made Fukuda look bad — it\’s the article, which shows that Mr. Fukuda was scheming to unseat Mr. Abe just as much as Mr. Aso was.I don\’t doubt that the factions can play a positive role, but the point is that no one should harbor any illusions about how the LDP works. Even with power shifting to the Kantei, competition within the LDP remains cutthroat.Indeed, Mr. Fukuda appears to be much more of a wily political operator than the conventional wisdom holds.


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