Shinzo Abe is set to resign, saying he wants to avert problems for the government from his ill health.
An apologetic Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he will step down after a record seven years and eight months as leader citing ill-health after a recurrence of ulcerative colitis.
Abe announced his resignation in a news conference on Friday, in which he addressed his health after two recent hospital visits. The 65-year-old said he wanted to avoid causing problems to the government because of his worsening condition.
“I have decided to step down from the post of the prime minister,” Abe said, saying he was suffering from the same condition that ended his first term in office. “I cannot be prime minister if I cannot make the best decisions for the people.”
Abe has battled ulcerative colitis for years and two recent hospital visits within a week had fanned questions on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as ruling party leader, and hence, premier, in September 2021.
“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,” said Abe, bowing deeply.
Governing party officials had said Abe’s health is fine but the hospital visits, one lasting more than seven and a half hours, had fuelled rumours about his ability to handle the job with another year before his term expired.
“A lack of information had created a vacuum that people have been happy to fill with speculation,” Tobias Harris, author of The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan, a biography of Abe to be published in November, told Al Jazeera.
On Monday, Abe marked his 2,799th consecutive day in office since bouncing back to leadership in late 2012 for a second term in office and became Japan’s longest-serving leader, beating a record set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.
But his popularity has fallen to about 30 percent in recent opinion polls over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and scandals among governing party members.
Friday’s bombshell development kicks off a leadership contest in the world’s third-largest economy. Abe said he would not comment on his potential successors, but said the next leader should continue to work on fighting the coronavirus.
Abe built his administration around his plan to revive the economy with his “Abenomics” policy of spending and monetary easing. He has also beefed up Japan’s military spending and expanded the role of its armed forces even as his dream of revising the country’s pacifist constitution has failed to make headway.
The resignation will trigger a leadership race in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – most likely in two or three weeks – and the winner must be formally elected in parliament. The new party leader will hold the post for the rest of Abe’s term.
Whoever wins the party poll is likely to keep Abe’s reflationary Abenomics policies as Japan struggles with the impact of the novel coronavirus, but may have trouble emulating the political longevity that may be Abe’s biggest legacy.
“The broad picture remains in tact. In terms of economic and fiscal policy, the focus remains very much on reflation,” said Jesper Koll, senior adviser to asset manager WisdomTree Investments.
Abe has been struggling with ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager. Returning from the last hospital visit on Monday, he said he wanted to take care of his health and do his utmost at his job.
Speculation that he would step down was initially dismissed by allies in his governing Liberal Democratic Party, including by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who said he meets Abe twice a day and has not seen any change in his health.
He added Abe’s comments on Monday that he would continue to do his best in the job “explains it all”.
Abe is in his second stint as prime minister. He resigned abruptly from his previous term in 2007 because of his illness, which he has been able to keep in check with medicine that was not previously available. The condition is said to be aggravated by stress.
Jeff Kingston from Temple University in Tokyo said Abe’s legacy “will be rather limited”.
“He will be remembered for the longest-serving prime minister, but having been in power for so long with a super-majority in the Diet [parliament], he hasn’t really achieved all that much. And so maybe he has given stability and Japan has been governed reasonably well. But in terms of the ambitious agenda of Abenomics he really has achieved very little,” Kingstom told Al Jazeera.
“He said he would decrease inflation, that hasn’t happened. He said ‘we’re going to raise wages’, that hasn’t happened. Households are not feeling the love, and so generally speaking Abenomics is often criticised for being welfare for the wealthy.”