The post-Fukuda landscape remains open — for now

Aso Taro, who has presumably been vying for the LDP presidency since losing it to Fukuda Yasuo in September 2007, was asked about his intentions at a speech on Monday. Like his potential rival, Yosano Kaoru, Mr. Aso demurred, declining to declare what has been openly acknowledged for months.

I suppose it would be inappropriate for Mr. Aso to start measuring Mr. Fukuda’s coffin overtly, especially when he can let the media (and other members of the LDP) do it for him. But no one should take his humility at face value.

As noted previously, Mr. Aso’s assumed candidacy has already upset the resurrection of the Kochikai, the onetime mainstream faction that was most notably home to dovish, liberal internationalist prime ministers Ikeda Hayato and Miyazawa Kiichi. An article in AERA, a weekly magazine, illustrates why the rebirth of the Kochikai does not mean the resurrection of the liberal internationalists as a major force within the LDP. The party, the article, notes has moved rightward in the years since the faction split in the aftermath of Kato Koichi’s abortive rebellion against then-prime minister Mori Yoshiro in 2000. Not surprisingly, the resurrected faction is a diminished version of the faction that existed in 2000. The difference? The Aso faction, which in 2000 was the Kono (Yohei) group, did not reunite with the Koga and Tanigaki factions, largely because Mr. Aso’s policy perspective is vastly different from the policy positions of leaders of the Kochikai.

Mr. Aso’s candidacy poses a threat to factional discipline in all LDP factions, the Kochikai included, thanks to Mr. Aso’s popularity among younger, reformist LDP members who are distributed throughout the party. Thanks to his “insurgents,” Mr. Aso’s showing in September 2007 was surprisingly strong considering that he was opposed by all factions but his own. It seems that Mr. Aso has learned his lesson, however: rather than tempt his supporters to buck their faction leaders, he appears to be using the fact of his cross-factional support to make appeals directly to faction chiefs. Two days after the Kochikai’s first party, Mr. Aso met with Koga Makoto in an effort to heal a longstanding personal rift — presumably in the hope that Mr. Koga will swing the faction behind Mr. Aso’s candidacy (which, as noted previously, would risk alienating his partner, Tanigaki Sadakazu).

Meanwhile the Machimura faction’s failure to back a post-Fukuda candidate thus far is now an established fact. Mainichi, reporting on the occasion of the faction’s party Monday night (which was attended by approximately 5000 guests), notes that the faction’s chiefs are divided on whether to support a candidate from within the faction who if elected would be the fifth consecutive LDP president from the faction. Nakagawa Hidenao spoke of a “hero or heroine,” presumably suggesting that he is continuing to back Koike Yuriko, despite Mori Yoshiro’s openly dismissing her prospects. Mainichi rules out both Mr. Nakagawa and Machimura Nobutaka, the chief cabinet secretary and titular faction head. No word on Mr. Mori’s thinking. Mainichi suggests that the faction leadership wants to nominate someone from within the faction for fear of forfeiting the faction’s position, but there is no obvious contender — and the worst outcome of all (for the faction) would be for the faction to nominate one of its own over the opposition of a significant minority, prompting that minority to vote for another candidate.

Division within the Machimura faction is probably good news for both Mr. Aso and Mr. Yosano, as it raises the possibility that either might receive the support of the largest LDP faction should it prove unable to resolve its deadlock.

Indeed, it seems conceivable to me that Mr. Aso might offer a “Tanakasone” arrangement to Mr. Mori and the other leaders of the Machimura faction, agreeing to pack his cabinet with members of the Machimura faction in exchange for its support in the party election.

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