Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, announced his resignation due to poor health on Friday, ending a stint at the helm of the world’s third-biggest economy in which he sought to revive growth and bolster its defences.
“I have decided that I will step down as prime minister, with the belief that 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.
On Monday, Abe surpassed a record for longest consecutive tenure as prime minister set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago.
He said he had decided to step down now to avoid a political vacuum as the country copes with its novel coronavirus outbreak.
“I apologize 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 and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus,” Abe said.
He similarly quit in 2007 after one year as prime minister, citing illness.
Abe has battled the disease 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 prime minister, in September 2021.
The condition worsened after June and he said he’s now on a new treatment that requires IV injections. And while he said there has been some improvement, there is no guarantee that it will cure his condition.
“It is gut-wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals,” Abe said Friday, mentioning his failure to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted years ago by North Korea, a territorial dispute with Russia, and a revision of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution.
Abe’s resignation also comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between America and China and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
Abe was one of the few G7 leaders not to receive acute barbs from U.S. President Donald Trump, and the countries negotiated a new trade deal late last year, after the U.S. pulled out of the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership. The relationship appeared solid even after Trump appeared to downplay the threat of missiles fired by North Korea into the Sea of Japan.
But Abe was unable to achieve his cherished goal of formally rewriting Japan’s pacifist constitution — drafted by the U.S. after the Second World War — because of poor public support. In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since that war.
While he pulled Japan out of recession, the economy has been battered anew by the coronavirus pandemic, and in Asian relations, his ultra-nationalist brand of politics has occasionally riled China and the two Koreas.
Abe saluted for ‘distinguished career’
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised Abe for strengthening relations between the two countries, as international reaction poured in.
I’m thankful for all the progress we’ve made together, <a href=”https://twitter.com/AbeShinzo?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@AbeShinzo</a> – your vision, your leadership, and your friendship have brought our two countries closer. For that and for all the years you’ve dedicated to building a better world, thank you. Wishing you good health, my friend. <a href=”https://t.co/M0m8Xeq58J”>pic.twitter.com/M0m8Xeq58J</a>
“Under his stewardship the U.K.-Japan relationship has gone from strength to strength in trade, defence and our cultural links,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Thank you for all your years of service and I wish you good health.”
Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been fixtures in the G7 for several years. Merkel on Friday praised Abe as “someone who advocated multilateralism and made clear over the great distance between Germany and Japan our common basis of values.”
“I wish him all the best from the bottom of my heart and thank him for working well together,” she told reporters in Berlin.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ spokesperson said he wishes Abe a full recovery and hailed “the prime minister’s distinguished career … and his consistent and constructive engagement with the U.N. to address global challenges.”
In recent years, South Korea and Japan have had fraught relations over trade issues, wartime history and military co-operation. President Moon Jae-in’s office said Abe dedicated many years to the development of bilateral relations and achieved “various meaningful accomplishments.”
Several challenges for successor
Abe’s resignation will trigger a leadership race in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The winner must then be formally elected in parliament. The new party leader will hold the post for the rest of Abe’s term.
As he began his second term in December 2012, Abe pledged to revive growth with his “Abenomics” mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms.
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 said was a lack of leadership as infections spread.
In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.
Abe had hoped to showcase his nation to the world this year at the Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach credited Abe with spearheading the winning bid. The country last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964.