KONFRONTASI-Shinzo Abe will stand down as prime minister of Japan because of a relapse in his ulcerative colitis, ending an eight-year term that made him the longest-serving leader in his nation’s history.
His departure will set off a race for the leadership of Mr Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic party even as Japan struggles to deal with the impact of Covid-19, a deep economic downturn and disputes with its neighbours in China and South Korea.
Announcing his decision to step down at a press conference in Tokyo on Friday evening, Mr Abe said that he could not risk making errors of judgment because of his weakened physical condition. His resignation will take effect as soon as the party chooses a successor.
“The most important thing in politics is results,” he said. “If I can’t discharge my responsibility to the people of this country with confidence, then I judge I should not continue as prime minister.”
Mr Abe said there were signs of illness at a regular medical check-up in June and from mid-July he began to suffer with exhaustion. His diagnosis was confirmed in early August. Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause weight loss, nausea and fatigue during periodic flare-ups.
During his term, Mr Abe gave Japan a renewed sense of confidence but he did not achieve his main goals of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, settling a territorial dispute with Russia or reviving the economy enough to hit a 2 per cent inflation target.
He had once hoped to proclaim the end of deflation and then leave in the wake of a successful Tokyo Olympics, but Covid-19 not only led to the postponement of the Games until 2021 but erased most of his progress on the economy.
“He brought stability to Japanese politics and increased Japan’s international presence,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of politics at Nihon University. “But in terms of concrete results it’s largely disappeared.”
Political analyst Atsuo Ito was more dismissive, summing up the Abe administration as the “longest-serving; no legacy”. He said: “Whoever gets the job of prime minister will take over at a tough time.”
China has recently stepped up its incursions around the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, while Washington veers between disengagement and pressure for allies to take a tough line against Beijing. Mr Abe forged a personal link with Donald Trump that a successor will struggle to replicate, should the US president win re-election.
The succession to Mr Abe will probably depend on whether the LDP conducts a full leadership election, in which regional party officials are able to vote, or cites the coronavirus emergency as the reason for a quick vote among parliamentarians.
In a full election, strong candidates will include Fumio Kishida, the LDP’s policy chief, and Shigeru Ishiba, the former defence minister. Mr Ishiba, a longstanding rival to Mr Abe, has support from the grassroots but little backing from parliamentary colleagues.
In a quick election restricted to members of parliament, one of the favourites would be chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, said Prof Iwai. Mr Suga has been at the heart of Mr Abe’s government and is regarded as a formidable behind-the-scenes political operator.
Given the Covid-19 crisis, most analysts believe there will be no immediate change to Mr Abe’s stimulative economic policies. In fact, a new prime minister may attempt to reinforce their position with additional economic stimulus.
In the longer term, however, a new leader such as Mr Kishida or Mr Ishiba may place a higher priority on reducing the budget deficit. Mr Abe’s strong support for the US-Japan security alliance will probably continue but some potential leaders, such as Mr Suga, are better known for domestic policy.
Tokyo’s Topix index reversed gains of more than 1 per cent to close 0.7 per cent down on Friday. Japan’s yen, often a haven in times of uncertainty, strengthened 0.5 per cent to ¥106.06 to the dollar.(mr/fintimes)