Shinzo Abe’s resignation: Japanese continuity or change?

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Last week, Japan’s longest serving post-war leader, Shinzo Abe, announced his resignation to the public, citing an ongoing health struggle with ulcerative colitis. Watchers of Japanese politics have been aware of Abe’s health issues, and indeed, he resigned previously in 2007 due to the same disease. But, despite the relatively expected and unsurprising development, his resignation sends shockwaves throughout Japanese politics. A controversial yet undeniably dynamic politician, Abe has fundamentally altered the image of a Japanese Prime Minister, both through internal economic policy (popularly known as Abenomics) and its position in the international arena.

Thus, his successor will face a huge task, the first of them being establishing themselves as a stable figure in the political power structure. The premiership prior to Abe’s three stunning election victories in 2012, 2014 and 2017 was practically a “revolving door” (one that Abe himself was part of in 2006-2007), and the position rarely delivered a figure who could truly maintain a firm grip on office. With an election scheduled for 2021, will a new Prime Minister simply be a caretaker before the Japanese people select a new roster of public servants, or will the new PM be able to establish himself as a figure comparable to Abe in longevity?

Abe has fundamentally altered the image of a Japanese Prime Minister.

The most obvious successor seems to be Yoshihide Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary for eight years, and a loyal partner of Abe. After declaring his candidacy, the Liberal Democratic Party rallied to his support, highlighting their keenness for a semblance of continuity following the incumbent’s exit. This would mean a continuance of Abenomics (focus on monetary easing, fiscal stimulus through government spending and economic structural reforms), something that has yielded success in recent years, with higher GDP growth and better employment numbers.

But only this year, the success of Abe’s own politics has been brought into question, and the continuity in governance through Suga may spell a troubling conflict between the ruling party and public opinion. The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that much of the claimed economic success is in jeopardy, and the Japanese people on the whole opposed Abe’s leadership on the issue, despite their own outbreak being relatively contained early in the year. This may be why in a recent telephone poll, former Defence Chief Shigeru Ishiba was the most popular choice to succeed Abe, winning 34.3% of the vote.

The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that much of the claimed economic success is in jeopardy.

It may be that voters want change rather than simply Abe 2.0. Indeed, the various scandals that the incumbent has found himself embroiled in do not help in the slightest. Stories of favouritism and financial favours have often been found lurking in the wings of his premiership, and in the aforementioned poll, “leadership”, “honestly and humility” and “clear explanations to the public” were found to be the public’s priorities.

Voters clearly want honesty from their leader, but they arguably also want strength and stability. Ishiba could indeed do that, being distant enough from the current administration while also demonstrating strength on the international stage, something Abe has often been praised for. The incumbent has achieved the rare feat of having garnered the respect of President Trump, something particularly useful considering Japan’s geographic proximity to a looming Chinese superpower. In fact, Abe was a dominant presence in geopolitics, attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to alter Japan’s constitution in order to take control of their own security affairs.

As a more nationalist prime minister, Abe attempted to turn the country’s continued second world war guilt into a more proactive military posture. The extent to which the next Prime Minister will deliver this remains to be seen, but on the whole, Abe has left a rather large shadow on Japanese politics. It will be interesting to see how his successor reconciles a wish for change, with the stability and strong leadership that he brought to the table.

Image: Paul Kagame via Flickr

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