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As his faction's isolation deepens, heavyweight Ishiba eyes LDP presidential election

Former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba smiles as he hands hot tea to passersby in front of his office in Tottori, on Jan. 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOTTORI -- "Would you like some hot green tea?" It's just after noon on New Year's Day and former secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shigeru Ishiba, 60, is smiling and handing out hot tea in paper cups to passersby on a shopping street here where his main office is located.

Ishiba goes through this ritual every year, but unlike other years, the LDP presidential election is looming in September. In front of the 30 or so supporters gathered in front of Ishiba's office, Tottori-elected House of Councillors lawmaker Shoji Maitachi says, "I would like to use the power we have to the fullest to help (Ishiba) take control of the government."

As Ishiba finished handing out tea and headed back inside his office, a male supporter called out to him, "The current LDP is no good. I'm supporting the party because of you, Mr. Ishiba!"

While the LDP won big in the House of Representatives election in fall, dissatisfaction with the unchallenged power of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is beginning to smolder even among party supporters. "It (the LDP) is no good," replied Ishiba. "It's definitely no good, but the (LDP) Diet lawmakers who say, 'Yes, you are right (to their bosses)' have it easy, don't they?"

Having supported the Abe administration as party secretary-general and minister in charge of overcoming population decline and vitalizing local economy in Japan, Ishiba has been candid in criticizing the party as the "silent LDP" toward Abe since he left the Cabinet in 2016. He had called for a sufficient amount of intra-party debate on important topics such as constitutional amendments and a special law on Emperor Akihito's abdication, but he was met with a cold response.

"The LDP is a national political party for the citizens of Japan, so it's only natural that members have a variety of opinions," Ishiba said. "If those things go unmentioned, then we aren't the LDP. If we continue down this path, we won't be the LDP anymore."

Ishiba feels a sense of crisis, but those sharing his views are few in number, and their voices are not widespread, limited to the 20 members of the intraparty faction "Suigetsukai" that Ishiba chairs.

After the Cabinet approval rate took a dive due to the "Moritomo" and "Kake" scandals at the end of June 2017, the secretary general of the Ishiba faction Yoshihisa Furukawa was motivated by faction-less LDP lawmakers Yasukazu Hamada, Hachiro Okonogi and Hiroshi Kajiyama, whom he invited to a Tokyo restaurant. If Ishiba were skillful in getting the support of the majority of LDP legislators, he might have won the LDP presidential election in 2012. While he won in a landslide among party members, he lost to Abe in the deciding vote made by Diet lawmakers. Mainly legislators who supported Ishiba's run at the time came together to form the current Ishiba faction in 2015.

Hamada, Okonogi and Kajiyama created a study group called the "Muhabatsu Renrakukai" (Non-factional network) with Ishiba, and even called for an end to factionalism in the party. With the formation of the Ishiba faction, they have since distanced themselves from the politician, but Ishiba apparently wants these politicians to support him if he does indeed run in the LDP presidential election.

In what appears to be an effort to put the brakes on such a situation, Prime Minister Abe tapped both Okonogi and Kajiyama for the Cabinet reshuffle in August 2017, further isolating the Ishiba faction.

"I still don't feel the passion yet from the 20 members (of the Ishiba faction) that 'We can do this no matter how long we are relegated to the sidelines,'" LDP General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita said during a greeting speech at a party held by Ishiba in Tokyo in November 2017. The excited Ishiba faction was unsure whether or not to treat the words as encouragement.

While the 55-member Nukaga faction to which Takeshita belongs is a cornerstone faction in Abe's support base, it does not have a strong candidate to put forth for a "post-Abe" LDP. Ishiba had previously spent time in its ranks, and Takeshita, who is from Shimane Prefecture neighboring Ishiba's Tottori, was instrumental in securing legislators who would recommend Ishiba as an LDP presidential candidate in 2008.

"I've been acquainted with Mr. Takeshita for a long time," said Ishiba, hinting at his expectation for support from the Nukaga faction. Ishiba also frequently visits Mikio Aoki, who served as chief Cabinet secretary under former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and who continues to wield a great deal of power in the Nukaga faction even after his retirement from the world of politics.

However, there are still roughly eight months left before the LDP election. While Takeshita said, "It's a waste to think of things so far ahead now," breaking the ranks of Abe's powerful support base to back Ishiba has few merits.

"Ishiba is the opposite of Abe," said a senior member of the Ishiba faction. "Right now, just being the antithesis of Abe is a good thing."

It is a possible decline in Abe's popularity that will present an opportunity for Ishiba. Said another way, Ishiba faces a battle of patience, waiting for Abe's popularity to decline. But are members of the Ishiba faction prepared to remain a nonmainstream faction "no matter how long they are relegated to the sidelines?" The LDP leadership election is approaching, in which the Ishiba faction's readiness to bide its time will be tested.

If Prime Minister Abe wins his third-consecutive LDP presidential election in September this year, he will secure his position as party president for another three years -- until 2021. Solidifying his base in the fall lower house election, the prime minister chose the word "challenge" to represent 2017. How will those aiming for a "post-Abe" government challenge him in the months leading up to the election?

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