Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today he was resigning because of poor health. This ends his stint at the helm of the world’s third-biggest economy during which he sought to revive growth and bolster its defences.
“I cannot be prime minister if I cannot make the best decisions for the people. I have decided to step down from my post,” Abe, 65, said at a press conference.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shares personal chemistry with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said he was “pained” to hear about the outgoing Japan prime minister’s ill health and credited him for cementing relations between the two countries.
PM Modi tweeted to PM Abe hours after the Japanese prime minister announced his decision to resign from the top post due to his health condition. “Pained to hear about your ill health, my dear friend @AbeShinzo,” PM Modi said in a tweet.
Abe has been fighting ulcerative colitis
Abe has battled the disease ulcerative colitis for years. Two recent hospital visits within a week had set tongues wagging in Japan. They speculated whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as ruling party leader, and hence, premier, in September 2021.
As news of the resignation spread, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei average fell 2.12% to 22,717.02. The broader Topix shed 1.00% to 1,599.70. The selling wiped $4.7 billion off Tokyo’s $5.7 trillion stock market value, which had more than doubled during the tenure of Abe.
The resignation will trigger a leadership race in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the most in three weeks. The winner must be formally elected in the Japanese parliament. The new party leader will hold the post for the rest of the term that Abe did not complete.
Whoever wins the party poll is likely to maintain the reflationary “Abenomics” policies. Japan is struggling with the impact of the novel coronavirus, but may have trouble emulating the political longevity that is the greatest of legacies of Abe.
“The broad picture remains intact. In terms of economic and fiscal policy, the focus remains very much on reflation,” said Jesper Koll, senior adviser to asset manager WisdomTree Investments. “Longevity will be a struggle,” he said.
Last Monday, Abe had surpassed a record for the longest consecutive tenure as a premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.
“As head of the ruling party, he worked hard on Abenomics for eight years,” said brokerage employee Naohito Kojima, 55. “There were various problems but if someone else had been leader, it’s questionable whether they could have maintained a stable government as long as Mr Abe. He did various diplomatic negotiations and I think the pros outweighed the cons,” he said.
The resignation of Abe also comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between the US and China and ahead of the American presidential election in November.
Support was on decline
The conservative Abe returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his “Abenomics” mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He had pledged also to spruce up Japan’s defences and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.
Under fire for his handling of the coronavirus and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels of his nearly eight years in office.
Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in virus cases seen elsewhere, but Abe had drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.
In the second quarter, the biggest economic slump on record hit Japan, with the pandemic emptying shopping malls and crushing demand for cars and other exports. This, however, bolstered the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.
Abe wanted a strong Japanese military
Abe kept his promises to strengthen defences, boosting of the spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad.
In a historic change of gears in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since the Second World War.
A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence or defending a friendly country under attack.
But Abe proved unable to revise the US-drafted, post-war constitution’s pacifist Article 9. This personal mission had eluded his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, too, who quit as premier in 1960 because of an uproar over a US-Japan security pact.
Abe resigned from his first stint as prime minister in 2007, citing ill-health after a year plagued by scandals in his cabinet and a huge election loss for his ruling party. He had since kept his illness in check with medicine that was not previously available.