Shinzo Abe to step down as Japanese prime minister

Shinzo Abe will stand down as prime minister of Japan on Friday evening because of a worsening medical condition, according to his ministers and close aides.

His resignation, expected in a press conference at 5pm local time, will end an eight-year term during which Mr Abe brought stability to Japanese politics and became the longest-serving leader in his nation’s history.
It will ignite a race for the leadership of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party while Japan is struggling to deal with the impact of Covid-19, a deep economic downturn and disputes with its neighbours in China and South Korea.

Hiroshige Seko, head of the LDP in the upper house of parliament and one of Mr Abe’s closest allies in politics, said the prime minister had chosen to quit now rather than risk a chaotic exit when his health deteriorated.

“He will continue as leader until his successor is decided,” Mr Seko said.

Whoever gets the job of prime minister will take over at a tough time
Atsuo Ito, political analyst

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.

The prime minister had once hoped to proclaim the end of deflation and then leave in the wake of a successful Tokyo Olympics, but the Covid-19 pandemic has not only postponed 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 US President Donald Trump that a successor will struggle to replicate, should the US president win reelection.

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 grass roots 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 situation with Covid-19, 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.

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