Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to resign due to health reasons, ending his run as the country’s longest serving premier.
Abe told members of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party that he would step down, and his successor will be picked by an election within the party, lawmaker Hiroshige Seko said after a meeting on Thursday. Abe had been scheduled to give a news conference at 5 p.m. Friday in which he planned to discuss his health.
No one was immediately available for comment at his office.
Japan’s Topix index dropped as much as 1.6% on the sudden announcement, while the yen rebounded from losses following the report. Abe spoke for a few minutes Friday ahead of the reports, where he told a meeting of the government’s virus task force his administration has put together a new plan to combat Covid-19 ahead of the winter flu season.
The 65-year-old prime minister has visited Keio University Hospital twice in the past two weeks, telling reporters that he was undergoing tests to maintain his health. Although the government has provided few details, local reports said he was undergoing treatment for ulcerative colitis, a chronic digestive condition that forced him to step down as premier in 2007.
“Monetary and fiscal policies will remain intact for now, but the mood will sour like it did last time,” said Tsutomu Soma, a bond trader at Monex Inc. in Tokyo. “It is going to take a long time for Japan to see a long-standing administration again. Having a stable government had helped the country pursue various reforms, but political jitters could risk Japan’s position in the international arena.”
Abe has had little time away from work as the coronavirus continues to spread throughout Japan, triggering the worst economic contraction on record in the April-June quarter. As virus numbers have increased in recent weeks, Abe’s approval slid to a record low of 35.4% in a poll published by JNN in early August, with critics saying his policies have come too late and fallen short of needs.
“The problem is that he’s now an electoral liability, so if the LDP wants to win elections, they need to change leaders,” said Steven Reed, an emeritus professor of political science at Chuo University.
It was uncertain who could take over. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has served as Abe’s right hand man since taking the post in 2012. Suga is a continuity candidate who could be tapped as a caretaker if the premier steps down suddenly.
Finance Minister Taro Aso also serves as deputy prime minister and could step in. Aso is part of Abe’s inner circle and served an unsuccessful year in the post of prime minster in 2008-2009, at the end of which the opposition Democratic Party scored a landslide election victory over the LDP.
Shigeru Ishiba, a former defense minister, is the voters’ top choice to take over. He has backed economic policies seen as more populist than Abe’s, and said in an interview in April that too much wealth was accumulating in the hands of stockholders and company owners.
Abe swept to office for the second time in 2012, touting new plans to revive the flagging economy through unprecedented monetary easing and regulatory reform that was eventually labeled “Abenomics.” He has been seen as a steady hand who has consolidated power during his record run and been able to overcome scandals, including one that came to light in 2017 over questionable government land allocations for schools provided to associates of Abe and his wife Akie.
The grandson of former premier Nobusuke Kishi and son of a foreign minister, Abe sought to bolster Japan’s presence on the world stage. He loosened restrictions on the military and increased the country’s defense budget, while seeking unsuccessfully to amend the pacifist Article 9 of the U.S.-drafted constitution.
In 2016, he became the first leader of a major nation to court Donald Trump following his election as U.S. president — working to maintain personal ties through golf games and hamburger lunches, despite differences of opinion on subjects ranging from trade to climate change.
Abe’s efforts were called into question when Japan came under the threat of punitive U.S. auto tariffs, forcing him to agree to a bilateral trade deal that opponents criticized as giving away too much. Trump later called on Japan to quadruple what it pays to support U.S. troops in Japan.
Abe also devoted energy to trying to resolve a World War II territorial dispute with Russia, which has simmered for seven decades. He has spent years trying to mend ties with China, which were at their most hostile in decades when he took office.