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Monday, June 26, 2006

Koizumi leaves LDP factions in tatters


Staff writer

When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi assumed the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party in April 2001, he vowed to "destroy" the party that had been in power for almost the entire time since its creation in 1955.

Among the factors contributing to the LDP's strength over the decades were the rivalry among its intraparty factions, its close ties with the bureaucracy and big business, and its role as coordinator for vested interest groups, which in turn served as the party's support base.

But in the five years since taking office, Koizumi has indeed shattered the LDP — and for the worse, his political foes say.

"Koizumi has managed to go further than just destroy the LDP — he has completely annihilated it," grumbled People's New Party leader Tamisuke Watanuki, a former House of Representatives speaker. "Koizumi has turned Japan from a democracy into a dictatorship where everyone must do whatever he tells them to."

Watanuki, an LDP member for more than three decades, broke ranks with the party because he opposed Koizumi's plan to privatize the postal system and as such was banned from running on the party ticket in September's general election, which was called because the privatization legislation did not clear the Diet. Many who opposed privatization feared losing postal workers' votes.

"(Koizumi) broke the rules," Watanuki said in recalling the political battle over postal privatization. "The postal reform bill passed the Lower House but was rejected by the House of Councilors. When that happens, usually there is a discussion between the two chambers. Instead Koizumi just dissolved the Lower House."

Taking things a step further, Koizumi placed people the media dubbed "assassins," or new candidates to fight against the "postal reform rebels," in the election. He used the media to the fullest to gain voter support for his agenda in a strategy that came to be known as "Koizumi theater."

The result was a sweeping victory for the LDP, which won 296 out of the 480 seats up for grabs, with 83 of those going to freshmen candidates.

According to Masatada Tsuchiya, one such LDP lawmaker, these new faces come from a wide variety of backgrounds, including lawyers, housewives, journalists, doctors and bankers.

"Professionals from almost every field were brought in," he said. "(Party candidates) are no longer the orthodox type — bureaucrats, local government officials and secretaries to Diet lawmakers. . . . I believe communication flow within the LDP has improved (as a result)."

The new members formed a group called "the 83-kai" to exchange information as well as to organize various events and visits to such places as prisons and senior citizens' homes.

Tsuchiya, the group's chairman, said Koizumi and LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe had urged members not to join any of the party's factions.

"(Koizumi and Takebe) are hoping that we become the leaders in reforming the party," he said. "Instead of following the old traditions of doing whatever faction leaders order, they want us to take the lead (in creating) a new, modern political party."

For decades, the LDP thrived on factionalism. A faction's ultimate goal was to have its leader elected LDP president, which usually came hand in hand with the prime minister's seat. Rivalry among the groups was fierce, but this also gave the party its vitality.

"Factions had it all — money, authority over personnel shuffles and information," Tsuchiya said.

But their strength has weakened with the abolition in 1996 of multiple-seat districts in the Lower House, where two or more LDP candidates would compete against each other in the same district, political insiders say.

"The structure of factions has completely diminished," said Lower House member Akihiro Nishimura of the largest LDP faction, headed by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. "Before, (LDP members) had to listen to what their faction leader, not the party president, said."

In the days of the multiple-seat system, LDP factions each backed separate candidates. But with the introduction of single-seat districts, such factional battles came to an end, and now the president and secretary general wield the real power.

"Factions are now just groups of colleagues," said Nishimura, a longtime secretary to the late Finance Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka, the previous leader of what is now the Mori faction. "It is not about amassing power anymore. . . . We get together to get inside information on what's going on and where."

Looking back on the five years of Koizumi's administration, Nishimura said the biggest destruction he wrought was to break the "iron triangle" — the cozy relationship that existed among politicians, bureaucrats and the business world — that had been the key source of the LDP's power.

One way in which he did so was by actively utilizing the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, a body that comprises Cabinet members and experts from the private sector, to discuss frameworks for key policies, effectively reducing the power over policymaking long held by bureaucrats and LDP politicians.

"The LDP supported Japan from the devastation after World War II to the high-growth period (from the mid-1950s to early 1970s), and this triangular structure was necessary during that time," the lawmaker said, explaining that the close-knit ties among the three major forces enabled an effective way to forge and implement policies that in turn led to reconstruction and stable growth.

"But after achieving high growth, it began to work in a negative way — eventually leading to such issues as political corruption and bid-rigging. And Koizumi has managed to break that cycle."

Nishimura admitted that the prime minister's reforms have also been harmful in some ways, especially for those living in rural areas, who are seeing a reduction in subsidies and public works projects.

"Koizumi was in charge of the 'scrap' part of a 'scrap-and-build' process," Nishimura observed. "He destroyed everything — both the good and the bad. . . . Now it is up to the next (party) president to rebuild what was good and to ensure that what was bad remains destroyed."



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