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Abe, LDP leadership rival Ishiba maintain fragile relationship

Shigeru Ishiba, then secretary-general of the LDP, is seen at party headquarters on July 22, 2013, when he attended a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Behind him is a poster of Abe. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight Shigeru Ishiba, who will clash head-on in the upcoming party leadership election, have maintained a delicate relationship for years.

Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori talked about the hardships he experienced when he saw many LDP legislators leave the party in the past during a dinner meeting held on Aug. 9 that was hosted by an intraparty faction led by former party secretary-general Hiroyuki Hosoda, of which Abe is a member.

"It's not good to leave the party when members are trying to work hard to overcome difficulties. Don't you think so?" Abe, 63, said to Mori. One of the attendees said they felt Abe was sarcastically criticizing Ishiba.

Ishiba, 61, once left the LDP in 1993 after expressing support for political reform proposals made by the non-LDP Cabinet of then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. At the time, Mori was serving as secretary-general of the LDP.

Junichiro Koizumi, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, appointed both Abe and Ishiba to important positions.

Relations between Abe and Ishiba drew public attention for the first time when Abe was previously in power for a year from 2006 to 2007. When the LDP suffered a crushing defeat in the 2007 House of Councillors election under the leadership of Abe, Ishiba urged the then prime minister to step down saying, "The party will be finished unless you step down."

However, many other legislators within the LDP were also urging Abe to resign, and Ishiba was just one of them.

After resigning as prime minister, Abe supported Taro Aso, currently deputy prime minister and finance minister, in the 2008 LDP presidential election in which Ishiba also ran.

Some LDP legislators supporting Abe held a grudge against Ishiba for urging Abe to step down. However, an aide to Abe recalls, "These two politicians didn't have many contacts, and I guess neither of them saw each other as rivals."

Antagonism between Abe and Ishiba dates back to the 2012 LDP presidential election when the LDP was an opposition party.

Both Abe and Ishiba ran in the race as challengers, fighting against Nobuteru Ishihara, who was backed by an intraparty faction leader, and Nobutaka Machimura, who led his own faction.

Both the Abe and Ishiba camps, which emphasized that they did not rely on support from intraparty factions, organized joint study sessions. However, some within the Abe camp voiced opposition to joining hands with Ishiba's group and observations were prevalent within the party that Ishiba had the upper hand over Abe. Therefore, Ishiba did not actually cooperate with Abe in the campaigning.

More LDP legislators voted for Abe than Ishiba, who distanced himself more from intraparty factions than Abe. However, Ishiba had traveled across the country in order to gain support from rank-and-file party members.

Ishiba garnered the largest number of votes from rank-and-file party members in the first round of voting. However, Abe won the run-off election in which only LDP legislators in the National Diet cast their ballots, and made a comeback as party leader.

Abe then appointed Ishiba as secretary-general of the party because he was unable to ignore the wide support the LDP heavyweight gained from local LDP members.

At the time, Abe was quoted as telling a close aide, "An upper house election will be held next year (2013). I should take him on as my partner." The post of party secretary-general was attractive for Ishiba, who was striving to strengthen his power base within the party and become Abe's successor.

Abe and Ishiba thus began their collaboration based on their respective political calculations.

The LDP returned to power after scoring a landslide victory in a House of Representatives election in late 2012. The party also marked an overwhelming victory in the following year's upper house race. As secretary-general, Ishiba also contributed to the party's victories in both chambers' elections.

Ishiba proceeded with ruling coalition talks over Prime Minister Abe's proposal to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution to open the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in a limited way, although he expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal saying, "I don't fully support the idea."

In July 2014, the Abe Cabinet decided to change the government's interpretation of the supreme law to that end.

Ishiba desired to stay on as LDP secretary-general. However, Prime Minister Abe, who had cooperated with Ishiba in steering his government, strengthened his power base by scoring overwhelming victories in two consecutive Diet elections, and established his predominance in the LDP and the political world.

At the time, Ishiba was quoted as telling his close allies, "Mr. Abe cherishes friends who help him when he's in difficult situations. I once told him to 'quit.'"

Ishiba's concerns that he might be dumped soon came true when Abe reshuffled his Cabinet and party leadership in autumn of 2014.

(This is Part 1 in a series)


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