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Shinzo Abe resigns: A look back at the Japan PM’s tenure, and what happens next

Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe resigns: Shinzo Abe has resigned as Japan's Prime Minister citing health concerns. Local media says he suffers from a chronic medical condition that he has lived with since he was a teenager, but has exacerbated more recently.

Written by Neha Banka , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: September 1, 2020 9:54:04 am
shinzo abe, shinzo abe resigns, japan PM, japan new PM, japan, japan news, indian expressJapanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes off his mask at the start of a news conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, August 28, 2020. (Franck Robichon/Pool via Reuters)

Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe resigns: Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 66, resigned Friday citing health concerns. This announcement comes days after he made at least two hospital visits in a week. Abe recently became Japan’s longest-serving leader, breaking the record of spending the maximum number of days in office that was previously set by his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, who served as Prime Minister of Japan from 1964 to 1972.

Discussions concerning Abe’s health and his subsequent ability to serve in public office had persisted for months, but the governing Liberal Democratic Party attempted to quash them as unfounded rumours, insisting that Abe would be able to complete his tenure that was scheduled to end next year in September.

Why has Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe resigned?

According to local news reports, Abe suffers from ulcerative colitis, a chronic medical condition that he has lived with since he was a teenager, but one that has exacerbated more recently. During his first term as the country’s prime minister, Abe resigned in 2007, only a year after assuming the top job. At that time, political observers had said that Abe’s sudden resignation was a combination of foreign and domestic factors, including a political stalemate in Japan over the country’s logistical support for the US invasion of Afghanistan. Internally, several of Abe’s political appointees had been embroiled in a political scandal and his political party, the Liberal Democratic Party, too, witnessed a massive defeat in elections.

However, years later, observers said that in addition to these challenges, Abe’s health condition had also impacted his decision to resign and had pointed to a statement that the leader had made in 2007, admitting that he was “tired”.

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As recently as this past week, Abe’s political allies and party representatives had insisted that the prime minister would complete his term in office next year. Yoshihide Suga, the government spokesman, had also said that there was no indication that the prime minister was unwell.

Also read | Why New Delhi will miss Shinzo Abe, who gave new shape to Japan’s India ties

In an interview with Reuters, senior party official and Abe ally, Akira Amari had said that the prime minister appeared healthier than what he was a few months ago, adding that Abe’s “voice was stronger” and “colour had returned to his skin”, indicating that it was likely the leader was “mentally exhausted”.

shinzo abe, shinzo abe resigns, japan PM, japan new PM, japan, japan news, indian express Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, resigned because a chronic illness has resurfaced. (AP/PTI Photo)

What has Shinzo Abe’s tenure been like?

Abe has been a firm conservative politician and is known for his nationalist policies, particular his leanings towards revisionist history. These views have been visible in Abe’s domestic and foreign policy decisions for much of his tenure since he first became prime minister in 2012, but even more so in the case of contending with Japan’s colonial history, and particularly in its role of wartime sexual exploitation, violence and slavery of ‘comfort women’ in Korea and elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia.

Abe’s tenure will particularly be known for his aggressive economic policies known as ‘Abenomics’ that focussed on Japan’s economic revival and combined structural reform, monetary easing and fiscal expansion, with the goal to increase domestic demand.

Among his foreign policy plans, Abe has been known for approaching North Korea with a firmer stance. In 2014, Abe began focussing on building ties between Japan and ASEAN, India, Australia. Some observers believe that these foreign policy moves were an attempt to offset China’s influence in the region, as well its contentious ties with South Korea over several territorial and diplomatic disputes. As an example of improving ties with India, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to attend India’s Republic Day parade as the chief guest during the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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shinzo abe, shinzo abe resigns, japan PM, japan new PM, japan, japan news, indian express Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Shinzo Abe in New Delhi in 2015. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

Despite reservations about China’s growing influence, post 2014, Abe was also seen to attempt to build ties with Beijing by meeting Xi Jingping and had later announced that he had proposed the establishment of a hotline between Tokyo and Beijing to discuss and attempt to resolve issues such as maritime disputes.

More recently, Abe’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Japan was heavily scrutinized, particularly following a sharp rise in infections. The pandemic also impacted Japan’s ability to host the 2020 Olympics that was postponed to the summer of 2021. Much of the nation’s plans to continue to hold the Olympics next year depends on the availability of a coronavirus vaccine in time for next year’s games.

For Abe, and other top officials in the Japanese government, Tokyo being the host country for the Olympics had been a matter of pride, along with the question of the amount of investment that the country had poured in to host the games, and there had been initial reluctance to see it postponed. Much of Abe’s own political image had also been resting on his government’s ability to pull off a successful show.

Also read | Who takes over now that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resigned?

What have Abe’s policies been regarding Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution?

Although Abe has taken several policy decisions with regard to the building of defence and security, one of the most striking moves has been his attempts to reform and revise the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9.

Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution was the result of the brutality of the Second World War and came into effect in May 1947. This clause, included at the behest of the United States, reads as follows: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

That means, under the provisions of this clause, Japan is not allowed to maintain an army, air force or navy for anything other than self defence. The country does have the Self-Defense Force, that some critics believe operates as a defacto military force. Presently, Japan has one of the largest defence budgets in the world.

shinzo abe, shinzo abe resigns, japan PM, japan new PM, japan, japan news, indian express The pandemic impacted Japan’s ability to host the 2020 Olympics that was postponed to the summer of 2021. (AP Photo: Ivan Fernandez, File)

The revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution has been one of Abe’s many goals for which he pushed hard during his tenure but was unable to achieve. Abe and his political party have openly stated that they have wanted to revise this clause and to do so, in July 2014, Abe circumvented Japanese laws and approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to give more powers to the Self-Defense Forces. This move was done, ironically, with the approval of the US, much to the consternation of its neighbours, South Korea, North Korea and China, who opposed the move.

That isn’t to say that these attempts by Abe found support even within Japan. Some citizens and politicians had criticised Abe’s plans, deeming them to be unconstitutional, saying that Abe had deliberately circumvented constitutional amendment procedures to further his own political goals.

What happens next?

According to the BBC, after Abe’s resignation, under the provisions of Japanese law, an acting prime minister would step in and there would be no term limit on how long the acting prime minister would stay in the role. Abe would be replaced by deputy prime minister Taro Aso, who also serves as Japan’s finance minister. Next in line would be chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga.

An acting prime minister has limited powers in some ways. For once, the BBC reports that they can’t call for snap elections. Till a new leader is selected, the acting prime minister would have powers over budgets and treaties. Within the governing Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe is president, his resignation would lead to elections to vote for a new party leader. It is these elections that would lead to a parliamentary vote to elect the new prime minister whose tenure would last till September 2021, which was the end date for Abe’s tenure.

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