Japan’s new prime minister must grapple with huge debts, a shrinking population, an aggressive China and an unpredictable America
ABE SHINZO announced his resignation at a press conference in Tokyo on August 28th, citing ill health. Japan’s prime minister will continue to carry out his duties until the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) holds a vote on a new leader. Earlier this week Mr Abe surpassed his great-uncle, Sato Eisaku, to became the longest-serving prime minister in a single stint since Japan established the role in the late 19th century (he was already the record-holder if you count his previous turn in the job, in 2006-07). His abrupt departure, more than a year before his third term as party leader was set to end, has thrust the country into a period of uncertainty.
Concerns about Mr Abe’s health had proliferated following two hospital visits this month. Ulcerative colitis, a chronic intestinal disease, had helped end his first period as prime minister, after just over a year. (During flare-ups, some sufferers need to relieve themselves every ten minutes.) Nonetheless, his decision to step down came as a shock even to his closest associates. “I made my own decision without consulting with anyone,” Mr Abe said, citing a recurrence of the disease. His staff did not even have time to put his remarks onto a teleprompter.
The selection of a successor will be an internal affair for the LDP. A leadership election is expected to be held in the coming weeks. The winner will remain in office until the end of Mr Abe’s term, before facing re-election as the party leader next September. The deputy prime minister, Aso Taro, and the chief cabinet secretary, Suga Yoshihide, two loyal lieutenants, are seen as possible transitional candidates to serve out the remainder of Mr Abe’s term.
But that would only delay a bigger fight for leadership of the party and, given its hold on Japanese politics, the country. Ishiba Shigeru, a former defence and agriculture minister, is popular among voters and the LDP’s members, but not among its MPs. Kishida Fumio, the LDP policy chief, is said to be Mr Abe’s preferred candidate, but has thus far failed to inspire broader support. Kono Taro, the defence minister, and Motegi Toshimitsu, the foreign minister, are also possibilities. The contest will hinge on factional arithmetics and personalities, rather than policy.