Japan's ruling party has yet to vote on a successor to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but his loyal lieutenant looks set to win the post, the result of backroom maneuvering and bargaining that began months before Abe said he'd quit over ill health.
Yoshihide Suga, Abe's chief cabinet secretary, emerged this week as the frontrunner in the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) Sept. 14 leadership race when five of the party's seven factions backed him, before he even announced his candidacy on Wednesday.
The new LDP leader is almost guaranteed to become prime minister because of the party's majority in parliament's lower house.
The choice of Suga highlights the lingering influence of factions and old-school, personal politics and his alliance with the LDP's chief manager of party funds, rather than policy debates, party insiders say.
However, the image of backroom dealing - muted during Abe's nearly eight years in office - could dent Suga's credibility with voters in a general election that must be held by late 2021.
"There's no way that the leader gets elected as a result of a debate over policy, it's impossible," said Shizuka Kamei, 83, a former LDP heavyweight who spent 38 years in parliament and was one of five party barons who met secretly to pick a successor to then-premier Keizo Obuchi after he suffered a stroke in April 2000.
For decades, the conservative LDP was dominated by factions whose bosses backed rival candidates in multi-member constituencies, collected and handed out campaign funds, and used their clout to launch runs at the premiership.
That influence was weakened by reforms in the 1990s, but faction bosses still play big roles in the allocation of party and cabinet posts and in determining who wins leadership races.
Unusually, Suga himself is not a member of any faction, making his rise all the more notable. However, party insiders say his path to frontrunner was aided by his alliance with party heavyweight Toshihiro Nikai, the LDP's secretary general, cemented at three highly publicized dinners since June.
Talk that Abe might step down early, before his term as LDP leader and hence, premier, ends in September 2021, has simmered for months due to his low voter ratings, and gathered steam after reports his chronic illness had worsened.
Nikai, 81, has considerable clout because he effectively controls how the party allocates campaign funds, money that used to be disbursed by faction heads until the 1990s reforms.
Nikai is "an old-school politician who does old-school politics", said Katsuyuki Yakushiji, a professor at Toyo University.
"For him, public opinion is irrelevant. Nikai has teamed up with Suga to garner support for Suga and set him up as the next prime minister".
Nikai would benefit from a Suga premiership because Suga is most likely to let Nikai remain in his powerful post.
Nikai could not immediately be reached for comment.
Suga got a big boost on Tuesday when the LDP's general affairs committee decided to hold a slimmed-down leadership poll, limiting voting to its members of parliament and three representatives from each local chapter.
It rejected calls for a full-scale election that would include rank-and-file members, saying such a vote would take too long and leave a political vacuum, although the outgoing premier stays in his job until after the new leader is chosen.
The committee opted for a format that favors Suga over main rival Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister more popular with the public and grassroots LDP members.
The old-style maneuvering annoyed many rank-and-file LDP members and younger lawmakers.
"This should not be decided secretively," said Ryusuke Doi, secretary general of the LDP's chapter in Kanagawa near Tokyo. "I think they did this to crush Ishiba."
Ishiba has been a rare LDP critic of Abe during his nearly eight-year rule, has long shunned factions and now heads a group with just 19 members.
He also topped surveys of lawmakers whom voters preferred as next prime minister.
He has said the election format was "very regrettable" and bad for both democracy and the party.
Among Suga's backers are the 98-member strong Hosoda faction, from which Abe hails, and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso's group with 54 MPs.
Abe had long been thought to favor another candidate, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida.
But Kishida failed to enthuse ordinary voters, ranking low in public opinion polls, and Abe ultimately declined to give him public backing, effectively clearing the way for Suga.
Once Suga gained momentum, other faction leaders jumped on the bandwagon to ensure their members had a good shot at winning cabinet and party executive posts in the new regime, and ensure continuity of the status quo, sources said.
For all the similarities to the days of old-school LDP politics, there is one key distinction: Suga's status as neither a member nor leader of a faction.
"Factions are still important, but it's not like the old days when there were powerful faction leaders who all wanted to become prime minister," said Gerry Curtis, a professor emeritus at Columbia University.
"Suga is the most powerful person and he's not even in a faction."