by Hiroshi Hiyama/Miwa Suzuki
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Friday he will resign, ending his record-breaking tenure in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership race in the world’s third-largest economy.
Abe said he is suffering a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis that forced him to cut short a first term in office and said that he no longer felt able to continue as prime minister.
“There must not be time when I am not able to deliver results,” he said, speaking in a calm but sombre voice.
“Now that I am not able to fulfil the mandate from the people with confidence, I have decided that I should no longer occupy the position of the prime minister.”
While speculation about Abe’s political future has been growing in recent weeks, after he twice visited hospital for unspecified health checks, the resignation nonetheless came as a surprise.
Even as recently as Friday morning, the government’s spokesman had appeared to dismiss concerns about Abe’s health and suggested he would stay on in office.
But Abe made clear that would not be possible, and offered apologies for once again having to cut short his tenure.
“I would like to sincerely apologise to the people of Japan for leaving my post with one year left in my term of office, and amid the coronavirus woes, while various policies are still in the process of being implemented,” he said, bowing deeply.
‘A big surprise’
Abe said he would “firmly execute my duty to the end,” and until the next prime minister is appointed, a process that is expected to require a leadership election involving ruling party lawmakers and members.
The resignation shocked the markets, with Tokyo stocks plunging more than two percent towards the end of afternoon trade when reports of Abe’s decision first emerged.
“It was a big surprise”, said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo.
“His resignation comes at a time when Japan is facing tough issues, including measures against the coronavirus,” Nishikawa told AFP.
“There may be political confusion.”
Abe had been expected to stay in office until the end of his term as LDP leader in September 2021, and the jockeying for position to succeed him was still in its early stages.
Still, some potential successors have already emerged, among them Finance Minister Taro Aso, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida.
Kishida is rumoured to be Abe’s personal choice, while Aso commands one of the strongest blocs within the ruling coalition.
Most of the potential successors are seen as unlikely to break significantly with Abe’s policies.
Bitterly familiar decision
Abe declined to be drawn on who he would like to see take the top job, saying he had “no intention” of influencing the election, and that those often floated as candidates were all “highly capable.”
Experts said the election process was likely to happen in coming weeks, with a new parliamentary session possible by October.
Abe’s decision to step down will be bitterly familiar for the man who was forced to leave office just one year after becoming the country’s youngest ever prime minister.
He has since become Japan’s longest-serving premier, forever associated with the economic policy intended to revive the country’s economy that bears his name: Abenomics.
He said his legacy would be for others to decide but pointed to his efforts to bring Barack Obama to Hiroshima, making him the first sitting US president to visit the site of the atomic bomb attack, as among his proudest achievements.
Among his greatest disappointments, he said, was his inability to bring home Japanese kidnapped by North Korea decades ago.
In recent months, Abe has faced slumping approval ratings with criticism over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, including U-turns on stimulus measures and a widely-mocked policy to issue cloth face masks to every household.
He has also seen the effects of Abenomics begin to wither, with the economy sliding into recession earlier this year, even before the coronavirus crisis hit.