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Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, leaves office a diminished figure with an unfulfilled legacy


Craig Mark, Kyoritsu Women’s University

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended weeks of speculation about the state of his health by announcing his surprise resignation today.

The 65-year-old Abe was finally forced to concede to the ulcerative colitis intestinal disease that had brought his first brief term in office to an end in 2007.

After being treated with a new course of medication, Abe made a remarkable political comeback in 2012. He regained the leadership of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and led it back into government, three years after it was knocked out of power.

Abe easily defeated the weak and disorganised opposition parties in the 2014 and 2017 elections, and in 2018 secured an unprecedented third three-year term as LDP president, with his supporters speculating he could lead for yet another.

Abe was re-elected as LDP president in a landslide victory in 2018.
Takehiko Suzuki/AP

Partial successes in the economy, defence

Abe kept up this political success based around his core economic policy, prominently marketed as “Abenomics”. This comprised the three “arrows” of record stimulus spending, quantitative easing (printing money to buy assets), and attempts at deregulation.

Abenomics was partially successful at restoring mild economic growth, but this started to wane after consumption tax hikes last October. The country then slipped into recession with the coronavirus pandemic.

In foreign policy, the nationalistic Abe reinterpreted Japan’s pacifist constitution, passing bills in the Diet in 2015 to allow collective self-defence with its US ally — despite a lack of public support and large student-led demonstrations.

Accompanied by a sharp increase in defence spending, Abe’s long-held desire to change the constitution to allow even more assertive use of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces was left unfulfilled. In 2019 Upper House elections, the LDP and its coalition partners lost the two-thirds majority required to allow any constitutional referendum.

Despite this setback, the lack of a strong challenger within the LDP — as well as the failure of the opposition parties to pose any credible threat — allowed Abe eventually to become the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history.

Deeper relations with regional states

Abe energetically pursued foreign affairs throughout his tenure, maintaining the key US alliance through presidents Barack Obama to Donald Trump.

He sought greater Japanese participation in regional security by promoting a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, and in doing so, deepened Japan’s strategic relations with India, ASEAN and Australia.

Japan’s Self-Defence Force brought recovery equipment and personnel to help in Australia’s response to bushfires this year.

Abe managed largely stable relations with China, Japan’s largest trading partner, but territorial disputes with Beijing, as well as with Russia and South Korea, also went unresolved. Relations with South Korea, in particular, reached a low point over their wartime and colonial history.

Abe nevertheless built on his image as a senior world leader, culminating in hosting the G20 summit in Osaka last year.

Read more:
Shinzo Abe’s latest cabinet reshuffle could transform Japan

A bungled response to coronavirus

Abe’s erratic response to the coronavirus caused a sharp decline in his authority this year. A massive stimulus spending program sought to limit the damage to the economy, but the overall public response by Abe’s government lacked clear direction.

Regional leaders such as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike pushed early for a national state of emergency, but Abe only reluctantly declared one in April — and it only lasted around a month. Abe also delayed making a decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until foreign delegations announced they wouldn’t attend.

Abe’s leadership was damaged by the government’s initial missteps in its coronavirus response.
Masanori Genko/AP

While Japan has fared relatively well dealing with COVID-19, there have been other ill-considered responses by the government. These included the widely ridiculed “Abenomasks” and the “GoTo Travel” domestic tourism campaign, which entrenched the public’s impression Abe was failing to respond energetically enough to the crisis.

Persistent political scandals also continued to erode Abe’s legitimacy.

From mid-June, Abe held no press conferences for nearly 50 days, and made few public appearances until the commemorations around the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in mid-August.

As his approval ratings dropped to their lowest levels since 2012, Abe made a series of hospital visits in recent weeks. This sparked media speculation over his health, which LDP officials vainly tried to downplay.

Read more:
How Shinzo Abe has fumbled Japan’s coronavirus response

Who will be the next prime minister?

Abe will stay on as caretaker until the LDP’s Diet members elect a new president sometime over the next two or three weeks. This person will then be confirmed as prime minister by a vote in the Diet.

Speculation about his successor was already building in anticipation of the end of his term in September 2021, but this has now been rushed forward.

Prime candidates include his main old rival, former Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba, who enjoys the highest public approval ratings as an alternative leader. Fumio Kishida, the LDP policy council chief and former foreign minister, is widely considered to be favoured by Abe as his replacement.

Shigeru Ishiba is seen as a potential successor to Abe.

Another long-standing ally, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga may also be in contention, as could Defence Minister Taro Kono or Economic Revitalisation Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura.

Whoever is chosen by the LDP is unlikely to greatly change the direction of Japan’s economic and foreign policy. The new leader will have the ongoing responsibility of dealing with the persistent “second wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to engineer a post-pandemic recovery, while still burdened with record public debt and an ageing population.

Japan’s next prime minister will also soon face the judgement of the electorate, as the next national election is due by October 2021. The end of this patrician era of conservative politics has dramatically brought Japanese politics into an suddenly uncertain future.

Read more:
Why the fall-out from postponing the Olympics may not be as bad as we think

The Conversation

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How Shinzo Abe has fumbled Japan’s coronavirus response


Craig Mark, Kyoritsu Women’s University

As countries around the world debate when and how to ease pandemic restrictions, coronavirus infections continue their steady rise in Japan.

On April 16, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was forced to declare a national state of emergency until at least May 6, covering all 47 prefectures. This extended an initial state of emergency declaration on April 7 for seven prefectures, including the cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka.

Two medical groups have also warned that a “collapse in emergency medicine” has already happened as hospitals are being forced to turn away patients, presaging a possible collapse of the overall health care system.

How did Japan get to this point? The country had initially been held up as having one of the more effective responses to the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic. Yet, its curve has not even started to flatten like those of its neighbours, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The relatively low rate of infections from January to March was credited by some to Japanese societal norms: bowing instead of handshakes and hugs, the use of masks in flu season and generally high standards of personal hygiene.

Japan has long had a reputation for conformity and adherence to rules, so a high level of compliance with public safety directions was expected.

Read more:
Japan’s capricious response to coronavirus could dent its international reputation

However, overconfidence in these practices, and the ongoing lack of firm direction from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, may have lulled many Japanese into a false sense of security. This has been starkly demonstrated in recent weeks as crowds have flocked to parks to view the cherry blossoms, ignoring requests from local authorities to stay home.

Opinion polls now show at least half of Japanese disapprove of the government’s handling of the crisis and believe Abe’s national emergency declaration came too late.

Many Japanese believe Abe’s declaration of a state of emergency came to late.
Naoki Ogura/Reuters

Erratic decision-making from the start

From the start of the pandemic, Abe’s government has been criticised for being too offhand in its response and erratic in its decision-making.

Japan’s first major misstep occurred in early February, when the Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined in Yokohama. At least 23 passengers were allowed to disembark and go home without being tested, and around 90 government employees returned directly to their Tokyo offices after visiting the stricken vessel.

More than 700 cases were eventually linked to the cruise ship, in total.

Weeks later, Abe then ordered schools to remain closed until the end of the spring break in April, a sudden decision that caught both teachers and parents by surprise, leaving them little time to plan and prepare.

Read more:
Coronavirus in Japan: why is the infection rate relatively low?

Then came the lack of decisiveness on the Tokyo Olympics. Abe reluctantly announced in late March that the games would be postponed in 2020, but only after countries began to pull out and the government was accused of dragging its feet.

Read more:
Why haven’t the Olympics been cancelled from coronavirus? That’s the A$20bn question

Abe’s government has also faced criticism over relatively low levels of testing. Over 112,000 tests have been conducted, at a rate of around 7,800 per day in April. But the government’s decision to restrict most tests to highly symptomatic patients means actual cases are likely being under-counted.

At a press conference in mid-April, Abe pledged to rectify shortages of personal protective equipment for medical workers and ramp up testing. As an interim measure, two cloth masks are being mailed to every household, an unpopular gesture widely lampooned on social media as “Abenomasks”.

Even when Abe has tried to send the right message, the tone has been off. This was perhaps best symbolised by the mocking reaction to his well-intentioned “stay home” Twitter post, which portrayed him drinking tea and patting his dog.

Critics said it showed just how out of touch he was with the lives of ordinary Japanese.

Tokyo’s governor outshines Abe

As cases began to spike in late March, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike held an emergency press conference to urge residents refrain from nonessential outings, such as visits to parks to view cherry blossoms.

Yuriko Koike has emerged as a trusted voice during the pandemic.
Issei Kato/Reuters

But despite rising concerns from medical authorities, as late as March 31, Abe’s government still denied there was a need for a national state of emergency.

When the state of emergency was finally declared in mid-April, many feared it still wasn’t enough. Under the law, governors can requisition property and medical supplies to use to treat COVID-19 patients, but crucially, police have no enforcement powers to close businesses or restrict the movements of individuals. People and companies can only be asked to voluntarily comply.

The Japanese government could interpret two articles in the constitution to impose a stricter lockdown, as long as appropriate legislation is passed in the Diet, Japan’s parliament.

However, Abe has thus far avoided doing so. He seems to be bowing to pressure from the Keidanren, a major corporate lobby group and donor to his party, out of fear the economy could descend into an even deeper recession than the -5.2% reduction in economic growth projected by the IMF.

Crowds have flocked to view the cherry blossoms, despite messages to stay home.
Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

Demands have been increasing from health authorities, prefectural governments and opposition parties for Abe to take more forceful action. Revealing his diminishing political authority, he is even being pressed by both senior figures and rank-and-file members within his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The LDP’s junior coalition partner, the Komeito party, also threatened to break from the ruling coalition. The move forced Abe to extend a planned income support scheme for low-income households into a universal payment of 100,000 yen (nearly A$1,500) to all citizens, as part of the government’s record 117 trillion yen (A$1.7 billion) emergency stimulus spending.

And while Abe has floundered, Koike, his longtime rival, has emerged as a strong leader during the crisis, praised for her clear public communication and decisive action.

Abe’s third consecutive term as LDP president expires in September 2021, around the time national elections are due. Even if Japan recovers by then, his legacy as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister is now surely being tarnished.The Conversation

Craig Mark, Professor, Faculty of International Studies, Kyoritsu Women’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.