THE last thing that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s embattled prime minister, needed this week was a swipe from his mentor. Junichiro Koizumi, a former prime minister who ushered Mr Abe to political prominence in the early 2000s, said it was time for his protégé to quit. If Mr Abe clings to power as his popularity ebbs, Mr Koizumi warned, his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) could suffer in next year’s election for the upper house of parliament.

In fact, Mr Abe faces elections before then, in September, to secure a third term as leader of the LDP. Having led the party to a series of triumphant election victories, most recently for the lower house of parliament last year, he had been considered a shoo-in. Indeed, the party changed its rules to allow him to run. But since then a series of scandals has caused Mr Abe’s support in the polls to slump to its lowest level since he began his second stint as prime minister in 2012. He now seems likely to face a challenger in the autumn vote, which would leave his fate in the hands of the LDP’s fissiparous factions. While Mr Abe was visiting America this week, some LDP grandees met for dinner, which the press interpreted as an incipient plot.

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An old joke about the LDP is that it is neither liberal (it has an authoritarian, statist bent), nor democratic (it has ruled Japan for all but four years since 1955), nor even much of a party, since it is a weasels’ nest of rival factions. These are strangely formal institutions, with their own leaders, offices and bank accounts. Most of the party’s MPs are a member of one.

Factions date from the LDP’s origins as an alliance of disparate right-wing groups united only around the goal of keeping the left from power, says Takashi Inoguchi, a political scientist. They were especially important under Japan’s old system of multi-seat constituencies, whereby each district elected 4-6 representatives. This arrangement meant that LDP candidates in effect competed against one another, explains Yasuhide Nakayama, an LDP politician, and needed the money and machinery of a faction to gain an advantage.

The abolition of multi-seat constituencies in 1994 undermined the main rationale for strong factions, however. That gave party leaders a chance to assert themselves. Whereas Japan had previously rattled through prime ministers as the factions jockeyed (it has had more than twice as many since the second world war as Britain), Messrs Koizumi and Abe have been the longest-serving since the 1960s. Mr Abe has concentrated power in the cabinet secretariat, vastly expanding its staff. His inner circle bypass ministries and the party’s own mechanisms to write policies, especially on military and economic issues, says Harukata Takenaka of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, a research institution.

The party leadership selects the LDP’s electoral candidates and makes appointments within the bureaucracy. Advancement depends more on showing loyalty to the leadership than to any faction. Mr Abe nods to factions when sharing out junior government posts, but gives the most powerful ministries to his preferred candidates.

All this accelerates the drift away from the consensual politics of the post-war years, says Kenneth Mori McElwain of the University of Tokyo. The Hosoda faction (the largest, to which Mr Abe belongs) is more ideological than the others, notes Arthur Stockwin, another political scientist. It is “interested in promoting a set of policy ideas that go back to the 1950s”. Hence Mr Abe’s unpopular drive to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution.

The less doctrinaire factions do still matter, however, as vehicles to support their leaders’ ambitions, argues Tobias Harris of Teneo Intelligence, a consultancy. A recent internal spat involving the LDP’s third-largest faction could thus spell trouble. Fukushiro Nukaga, its leader, was forced to quit in March, largely because of his failure to secure cabinet posts for its members. His replacement, Wataru Takeshita, has taken a more confrontational line, threatening to withdraw support for Mr Abe in the leadership election.

Many in Mr Takeshita’s faction are also unhappy about the scandals dogging the prime minister. Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and leader of the second-biggest faction, may fancy himself a kingmaker. As for Mr Koizumi, he may sense a chance to clear a path for his son, Shinjiro, a prime ministerial hopeful who has yet to align himself with any faction. The factional politics that Mr Abe has done so much to erode may yet prove his undoing.

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