Abe’s — and the LDP’s — dilemma

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has been back in the headlines this week, first for his return to the Machimura faction, which he left when he became prime minister, second for the announcement that he will chair an LDP study group related to the implementation of his “Cool Earth 50” initiative. The latter prompted Asahi to ask whether this is the beginning of Mr. Abe’s “re-challenge,” referring to another of Mr. Abe’s initiatives.

Mr. Abe’s return to the Machimura faction makes him its sixtieth member from the House of Representatives.

I find the former of greater interest than the latter, because the Machimura faction increasingly appears to be a microcosm of the party at large.

Consider that the faction contains a moderate dove like Prime Minister Fukuda, risk-averse senior politicians like Mori Yoshiro, Nakagawa Hidenao, and Machimura Nobutaka, “true” conservative Abe Shinzo, and a healthy cohort (27) of first- and second-term members of the House of Representatives, many of them Koizumi Kids. With the Machimura faction having made the Kantei its private property over the course of this decade, its complexion matters considerably in the future of LDP governance.

The selection of Mr. Fukuda as prime minister, thanks in large part due to his own faction’s support, illustrates this point — and illustrates that the party is, for the moment, in the hands of the cautious, reactionary Mr. Mori.

Will Mr. Abe’s return make a difference? I suspect not. The very idea of an Abe comeback strikes me as laughable, and I expect that few of his conservative allies long for his return. (At least one of them doesn’t.)

The next LDP presidential election, meanwhile, will likely test the Machimura faction’s power. If it comes after the next general election — as I expect it will — it may find its numerical clout diminished somewhat as some of its one- and two-term members in vulnerable urban and suburban districts go down to defeat. The test will likely come from Nakagawa Shoichi’s “True Conservative Policy Research Group” [The HANA group], or at least the movement symbolized by the HANA group. Unless the Machimura faction decides to take a chance on Mr. Aso this time around, which would defuse the situation, the next LDP election will ask certain LDP members to choose between their values and their faction, and perhaps ultimately, their values and their party. This dynamic was present in the September election, as evidenced by the subterranean support for Mr. Aso — and the formalization of a conservative anti-mainstream in the form of the HANA group only exacerbates the tension.

Mr. Abe will be no less immune to this dilemma than his less prominent colleagues. Indeed, his return, according to Mainichi, is the result of Mr. Mori’s anger at Mr. Nakagawa’s group. As noted previously, one of the first steps in Mr. Abe’s political rehabilitation was his joining the HANA group last month. Writes Mainichi: “Mr. Mori, who frowned at this, urged Mr. Abe to return to the faction.”

Mr. Abe will be serving as a counselor to the faction, a position offered perhaps in part to cement his loyalty.

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