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Can former PM Shinzo Abe become Japanese politics' kingmaker?

Then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, accepts from then Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) policy chief Fumio Kishida a request for economic measures from the LDP's economic growth headquarters and coronavirus-related measures headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on March 31, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Since forming a government in October, Fumio Kishida's administration has been mocked as a puppet government of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But is that really true? When it comes to Japanese politics' behind-the-scenes fixers, we think of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who continued to exercise significant political power even after his involvement in the Lockheed Martin scandal emerged. Does Abe have what it takes to become the Reiwa era's kingmaker?

    Prime Minister Kishida's Cabinet has four members each from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)'s Takeshita faction and Hosoda faction. The Hosoda faction is also the one Abe originally belonged to. Sanae Takaichi's appointment as party policy chief has stirred claims that it is as if Abe conducted the personnel choices.

    "For Mr. Abe, the LDP presidential election and personnel appointments that followed were not bad," political pundit Kichiya Kobayashi, 80, said. In the LDP presidential race, Takaichi expanded her supporter base with former Prime Minister Abe's full backing. She garnered more votes from LDP Diet members in the presidential election's first round than then Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono did. "It confirmed Abe himself still holds sway in the party," Kobayashi said.

    Kichiya Kobayashi (Photo courtesy of Kichiya Kobayashi)

    No one in Japanese political history is seen as more of a kingmaker than former Prime Minister Tanaka. In November 1974, he announced his resignation as prime minister due to murky financial dealings, and became a criminal defendant in the Lockheed Martin bribery case. But he still continued to flaunt his massive control over politics, and was considered a behind-the-scenes fixer.

    How did Tanaka gain that position? Kobayashi, who has written numerous books on Tanaka, said, "Tanaka had the ability to strengthen solidarity, to the extent that it overwhelmed other party factions. Politicians within his faction also probably feared what retribution they would face if they betrayed him."

    The Tanaka faction had at least 140 members at its peak, and prided itself on its strong bonds. But a faction group including former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita rose in revolt and separated from it, which led to the creation of the Keiseikai faction now known as the Takeshita faction.

    In the most recent party presidential election, LDP lower house members with three or fewer election wins established suprafaction group Tofu Isshin no Kai, which proved to be highly influential on the poll. In response to the group's request, major party factions left who members would vote for up to them. Group head Tatsuo Fukuda, 54, is the son of Yasuo Fukuda and grandson to Takeo Fukuda -- both former prime ministers. Tatsuo is referred to as "prince" of the LDP's Hosoda faction. Following the presidential race, Tatsuo was appointed, despite having won only three elections, chairperson of the General Council, one of the LDP's top three executive posts. The promotion is said to have been at Abe's request.

    Tadaoki Nogami (Mainichi)

    Former Kyodo News reporter and political journalist Tadaoki Nogami, 81, explained, "According to his aides, Mr. Abe interprets what happened as (Tatsuo) Fukuda getting the younger lawmakers together and betraying the party leadership. So, Mr. Abe thought, if the leadership allows Fukuda to roam free, he could end up lighting a fuse on the political situation. Instead of doing that, leadership now has Fukuda on a tight leash by giving him an executive role."

    Nogami continued, "When I was a political reporter I was on the Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyu Kai (Hosoda faction) beat for a long time, but I never saw a revolt by young politicians like this. Mr. Abe likely thinks the young members' actions could become a credible threat as he intends to turn the Hosoda faction into the Abe faction in the future."

    Meanwhile, Kobayashi predicted, "If the ruling parties do not lose in the upcoming House of Representatives election, Prime Minister Kishida will gradually start showing his true colors. There will likely be talk of (Kishida's) Kochikai faction becoming larger (by joining with the Aso faction and Tanigaki group). Then Abe's power will become relatively weak."

    (Japanese original by Masahiro Kasai, Digital News Center)

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