TOKYO — Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on Friday announced he was resigning due to ill health.
“I cannot be prime minister if I cannot make the best decisions for the people,” Abe said during a live public broadcast to the nation.
Abe, 65, has for years battled “ulcerative colitis,” a chronic bowel condition where the colon and rectum are severely inflamed. He said his health started declining around the middle of last month and he did not want it to impact on important policy decisions.
His resignation comes amid an uncertain geopolitical environment, including an intensifying confrontation between the United States and China, a restive North Korea and ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.
As the news of his resignation spread, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei average tumbled by 2.12 percent as markets dealt with the uncertainty of who would lead the third-largest economy. Abe has made reviving economic growth through his “Abenomics” policies and boosting Japan’s international profile key pillars of his time in office.
Japan is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and although it has not suffered the surge in virus cases seen elsewhere, Abe has drawn fire for an allegedly clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread.
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His resignation will trigger a leadership race in the Liberal Democratic Party, the winner of which must be formally elected in Parliament. A new party leader would hold the post for the rest of Abe’s term until September 2021, and is likely to be elected in the coming weeks.
Abe, who hails from Japan’s political elite and on Monday surpassed a record for the longest consecutive tenure as premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half-a-century ago, will leave a mixed legacy.
He sought to increase the country’s global profile andwas the first foreign leader to meet with Donald Trump when he became president-elect in November 2016. Abe was also instrumental in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, which were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19.
Abe also pledged to beef up Japan’s defenses and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution, and it is unclear if his successor will take the same stance.
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. But in 2014 his government oversaw a historic shift, re-interpreting the country’s pacifist constitution to enable Japanese troops to be able to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two.
Despite this, Abe proved unable to fulfill a key political desire to revise the U.S.-drafted, post-war constitution’s Article 9, whichif taken literally, bans maintenance of armed forces but it has been interpreted to allow a military for self-defense.
Abe had made amending Article 9 a personal mission, after it also eluded his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as premier until 1960.
Abe stepped down once before — in 2007 — when he also cited ill-health but was reelected in 2012.
Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo, and Adela Suliman reported from London.
Reuters contributed to this report.