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Abe's decision to tap Nikai for important LDP post alarms intraparty rival factions

Toshihiro Nikai, right, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a plenary session of the House of Representatives on Aug. 1, 2016. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister and Liberal Democratic Party President Shinzo Abe has decided to replace LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki with General Council Chairman Toshihiro Nikai because he wants the veteran politician, who heads a main faction, to play a role in having authority over the ruling party.

But the appointment of 77-year-old Nikai, a powerful figure who has a great deal of experience in handling party affairs, could bring about changes to government administration that has been carried out at the initiative of the prime minister's office. Therefore, Nikai's appointment is a risk on the part of the prime minister.

There had initially been talk of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, 59, being appointed as LDP secretary-general, but a government source said about Nikai's appointment on Aug. 1, "He is a heavyweight. I think the prime minister has sought stability." Serving as LDP General Council chairman since September 2014, Nikai has worked to ensure party unity over development of security-related legislation and the further postponement of the consumption tax hike from 8 percent to 10 percent in accordance with the prime minister's intentions. A person close to Nikai said, "The prime minister is expecting Nikai to play a role of defusing opposing opinions within the party." Nikai's appointment could also help demonstrate the government's stance of improving relations with China as he is known as a pro-Chinese politician.

After the latest House of Councillors election in July, Nikai wasted no time at a news conference to express his idea of approving an extension of the term of LDP president. In order for Abe to stay in power beyond September 2018 when his term as LDP president expires, party rules need to be changed. Some people close to the prime minister are hoping that Abe will continue to remain in office until the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Nikai has likely started to lay the ground work for that. A senior LDP official said, "He was quick to talk about extending the term (of the LDP president) immediately after the election."

When Abe sounded him out on becoming LDP secretary-general, Nikai instantly accepted the offer. The prime minister may have asked Nikai in advance to take up the position based on the assumption that 71-year-old Tanigaki might not be able to continue to serve in the party's No. 2 post.

The position of LDP secretary-general is an important post among the party's leadership tasked with managing political funds and taking command of elections. Nikai is enthusiastic about expanding his own faction's influence, and the appointment of Nikai, who has supported a candidate who was not endorsed by the LDP in a House of Representative election in the past, is not completely welcomed by all party members.

Furthermore, because figures like Foreign Minister Kishida, who have been seen as viable candidates to succeed Prime Minister Abe, failed to secure the party's No. 2 post, a generational change in the LDP leadership will be pushed back. A lower house legislator who belongs to the faction led by regional revitalization minister Shigeru Ishiba, 59, said, "I think the prime minister is keeping the extension of the term in mind. That's not acceptable."

The LDP is expected to continue to have good relations with its junior coalition partner Komeito. But officials with Komeito are getting nervous, with a senior official saying that Nikai could use an "underhanded trick" on issues over which the two parties lock horns.

Nikai returned to the LDP in 2003 after leaving the party in 1993 to join other parties such as the then New Frontier Party and the then Liberal Party. In sharp contrast with Tanigaki who emphasizes the need to reconstruct government finances, Nikai, an ardent advocate of public spending, has insisted on the need for public works projects to ensure national resilience -- making Japan fully resistant to natural disasters. Partly for this reason, a government source voiced concern, saying, "The appointment of Nikai could be a dangerous drug."

Acting Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda, who is to become the chairman of the General Council, is the head of the Hosoda faction from which Abe hails. Therefore, Hosoda is close to Abe. Abe apparently tried to secure a balance in the party with the Nikai faction by appointing Hosoda.

Election Strategy Committee Chairman Toshimitsu Motegi, 60, is set to become the LDP's policy chief for the second time. He had served as LDP policy chief when the party was in the opposition camp. Motegi was credited with leading the LDP to victory in the lower house by-election in the Hokkaido 5th district in April and in the upper house election in July.

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