Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to resign over health problems, top lawmakers said Friday, in a bombshell development will end a record-setting tenure with no clear successor in yet in place.
Abe announced his plan at an emergency meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, senior lawmaker and close Abe ally Tomomi Inada told reporters.
“I heard his plan. It was sudden and unexpected. I am stunned,” she said.
Other lawmakers confirmed the account.
The news came hours before Abe was due to give a press conference to address speculation about his health.
It sent Tokyo stocks plunging more than 2%, with the benchmark Nikkei 225 index reversing earlier gains.
Inada told reporters Abe will stay in office until a successor is decided, most likely through an election of ruling party lawmakers and members.
Rumors about Abe’s possible resignation had intensified after two recent surprise hospital visits for unspecified medical checks, but in recent days, senior government officials had suggested he would serve out the rest of the remaining year in office.
But the decision nonetheless comes as “a big surprise,” said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo.
“His resignation comes at a time when Japan is facing tough issues, including measures against the coronavirus,” said Nishikawa.
“There may be political confusion.”
The resignation will be a bitterly familiar scenario for Abe, who stepped down just one year into his first term, in 2007, over health problems.
He was subsequently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which he said upon return to office in 2012 was under control with the help of new medication.
The decision comes despite the insistence of government spokesman Yoshihide Suga on Friday morning that Abe remained in good health.
“I see him every day and feel that there is no change in his condition,” Suga told reporters at a regular press conference.
And on Thursday, Suga told Bloomberg News that Abe would “of course” be able to serve out the rest of his term, which ends September 2021.
“He’ll be all right,” he said.
But the health woes appear to have piled on the pressure for Abe, who this week broke the record for the longest uninterrupted stint in office in Japanese history.
Despite the relatively contained impact of the coronavirus in Japan, Abe’s government has been heavily criticized for its approach to the crisis, including a U-turn on stimulus payments and a much-mocked decision to issue each household two cloth face masks.
The prime minister has also seen his signature “Abenomics” economic policy come under increasing strain, with the country already slumping into recession even before the coronavirus crisis hit.
Still, experts had said there was little appetite within the Liberal Democratic Party for Abe to depart early, especially as there is no consensus yet on his successor.
And with Japan’s fragmented opposition so far unable to capitalize on the government’s falling approval ratings, there had appeared to be little immediate pressure on him to step down.
If Abe’s health required him to leave office immediately, the premiership would pass initially to a caretaker government.
But initial reports suggest Abe plans to stay in office while a leadership contest is organized and party officials and members vote on his successor.
Among the candidates are deputy prime minister Taro Aso – who also serves as finance minister – and chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, as well as former and current cabinet ministers.