Shinzo Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, announced on Friday he will resign over health problems, in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership contest in the world's third-largest economy.
"I cannot continue being prime minister if I do not have the confidence that I can carry out the job entrusted to me by the people," Abe, 65, told a news conference as he announced his decision to step down.
He said he wanted to avoid a political vacuum as the country copes with Covid-19.
"I apologise from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term," Abe said, at times blinking back tears and his voice choking up.
In a country once known for its short-tenured prime ministers, Abe's departure marks the end of an unusual era of stability that saw Abe strike up strong ties with President Donald Trump even as Abe's nationalism riled the Koreas and China. While he pulled Japan out of recession, the economy has been battered anew by the coronavirus pandemic, and he has failed to achieve his cherished goal to formally rewrite the US-drafted pacifist constitution because of poor public support.
Abe is a political blue blood who was groomed to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. His political rhetoric often focused on making Japan a “normal” and “beautiful” nation with a stronger military and bigger role in international affairs.
Concerns about Abe’s chronic health issues, simmering since earlier this summer, intensified this month when he visited a Tokyo hospital two weeks in a row for unspecified health checkups.
Abe, whose term was to end in September 2021, is expected to stay on until a new party leader is elected and formally approved by the parliament.
Abe became Japan’s youngest prime minister in 2006, at age 52, but his nationalistic first stint abruptly ended in disappointment a year later because of his health.
In December 2012, Abe returned to power, prioritising economic measures over his nationalist agenda. He won six national elections and built a rock-solid grip on power, bolstering Japan’s defence role and capability and its security alliance with the US. He also stepped up patriotic education at schools and raised Japan’s international profile.
In reaction to the shock resignation news, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised Abe's record: "@AbeShinzo has achieved great things as PM of Japan – for his country and the world," Johnson said on Twitter. "Under his stewardship the UK-Japan relationship has gone from strength to strength in trade, defence and our cultural links. Thank you for all your years of service and I wish you good health."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, expressed her "regret" about Abe's resignation and spoke fondly of the rapport between them.
Merkel said she and her fellow veteran leader in the Group of Seven industrialised nations had a "shared foundation of values".
"I, of course, regret his resignation and wish him all the best for his health," she told reporters. "We always worked very, very well together ... He was always someone who committed himself to the fight for multilateralism."
The Kremlin also had warm words for the departing Abe on Friday: "Shinzo Abe really made an invaluable contribution to the development of bilateral Russian-Japanese relations," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
The longest-serving PM
Abe on Monday became Japan’s longest serving prime minister by consecutive days in office, eclipsing the record of Eisaku Sato, his great-uncle, who served 2,798 days from 1964 to 1972.
But his second hospital visit Monday accelerated speculation and political manoeuvring toward a post-Abe regime.
Abe has acknowledged having ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager and has said the condition was controlled with treatment. He has not made clear if that condition is related to his recent health issues or hospital visits.
Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and sometimes polyps in the bowels. People with the condition can have a normal life expectancy but serious cases can involve life-threatening complications.
After his recent hospital visits were reported, top officials from Abe’s Cabinet and the ruling party said Abe was overworked and badly needed rest.
His health concerns added to speculation that Abe’s days in office were numbered; his support ratings were already at their lowest levels due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its severe impact on the economy, on top of a stream of political scandals.
There are a slew of politicians eager to replace Abe.
Shigeru Ishiba, a 63-year-old hawkish former defence minister and Abe’s archrival, is a favourite to be the next leader in media surveys, though he is less popular within the ruling party. A low-key former foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, Defence Minister Taro Kono, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and economic revitalisation minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is in charge of coronavirus measures, are widely speculated in Japanese media as potential successors.
Abe, who repeatedly faced public criticism for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, was often upstaged by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a former ruling party conservative who's seen as a potential prime minister candidate by some. But she would have to first be elected to parliament to be in the running for the top job.
The end of Abe's scandal-laden first stint as prime minister was the beginning of six years of annual leadership change, remembered as an era of “revolving door” politics that lacked stability and long-term policies.
When he returned to office in 2012, Abe vowed to revitalise the nation and get its economy out of its deflationary doldrums with his “Abenomics” formula, which combines fiscal stimulus, monetary easing and structural reforms.
Perhaps Abe’s biggest failure was his inability to fulfil a long-cherished goal of his grandfather to formally rewrite the US-drafted pacifist constitution. Abe and his ultra-conservative supporters see the US-drafted constitution as a humiliating legacy of Japan’s WWII defeat.
He was also unable to achieve his goal of settling several unfinished wartime legacies, including normalising ties with North Korea, settling island disputes with neighbours and signing a peace treaty with Russia.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)