Over the weekend I received suggestions from two friends to read the Jiji Press article on the decline of the factions.(Link)
My reaction? A shake of the head.
The factions are stalled as vehicles for leaders seeking to become prime ministers -- no question. Since the advent of the new single-member district electoral system 22 years ago, only three of the eight the Liberal Democratic Party Prime Ministers (counting Abe twice) have been faction leaders. The factions are still nurseries for prime ministers: every single LDP PM has been a member of a faction. However, that a person becomes the leader of a faction has only marginal bearing on his/her viability as a potential PM.
That being said, the factions are far from dead. In answer to the question asked by the LDP member quoted at the end of the article, the factions exist in order to keep the LDP together. They provide a mechanism for making appointments in a manner that dampens individual competition between members. Rotating posts amongst the factions, particularly sub-Cabinet level posts, enforces patience and forbearance among individuals who would otherwise fight tooth-and-claw to win a party post or political appointment. Factional rotation of appointments gives members reassurance that if they get along with others they will be rewarded, in due time. It also provides a mechanism for adjudicating appointment puzzles posed by the candidacies of several members with identical seniority records and tribal (zoku) affiliations. Handing the post to one person rather than another based an arbitrary (non-merit based) external attribute -- factional affiliation -- defuses a rivalry.
The argument against faction-based appointment decisions is that merit and talent and not rewarded. The institutional answer to that is "Yes, precisely." If competitions for party and government posts were talent-based, then the losers in competitions, had they any self-confidence (sort of a necessity in politics, really), would be left questioning the impartiality of the judgment or the relevance of the judging criteria. With factional rotation, however, a person loses a post because, well, "It was a decision based upon the need for balance among the factions." So nothing the candidate did was really wrong; the timing just was not right.
With the factions no longer led by persons with an inside track to becoming PM, where are we to look for good future PM candidates? With the rise of the theatrical PMs Hashimoto Ryutaro and Koizumi Jun'ichiro a pattern seemed to be emerging: wavy haired, energetic, outspoken, listenable, life-loving, defined, liberal economic reformist bottchan PMs with a need to play to the television cameras -- the type of personality and image tailor made for what political scientist Inoguchi Takashi has termed "kabuki politics" (Link). Neither Hashimoto nor Koizumi was the leader of his faction at the time. However, their flashy personas and stubbornness transcended their seeming institutional weaknesses.
Anyone who has had to listen to Abe Shinzo, who is not the leader of his faction, speak for more than 30 seconds, in whatever language, knows that while he is a bottchan, "listenable" and "defined" he ain't.
So how is it that Abe got himself elected in 2012 and reelected without a vote this year, making him a historically durable PM? That I will save for another time.