Shinzo Abe: record-breaking PM undone by health woes

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TOKYO, Sept 16, 2020 (BSS/AFP) – Shinzo Abe smashed records as Japan’s
longest-serving prime minister, championing ambitious economic reform and
forging key diplomatic relationships, while weathering scandals. But in the
end, he was undone by his health.

The 65-year-old resigned on Wednesday after more than eight years in
office over two terms, forced to step down with a year left in his mandate by
a recurrence of the ulcerative colitis that has long plagued him.

He had been due to stay on until late 2021, giving him an opportunity to
see out one final event in his historic tenure — the postponed Tokyo 2020
Olympics Games.

Instead, he handed the reins to his close adviser, Yoshihide Suga, in a
bitter final act for Abe, whose first term was also cut short in part by his
health.

Abe was a sprightly 52 when he first became prime minister in 2006, the
youngest person ever to occupy the job.

He was seen as a symbol of change and youth, but also brought the pedigree
of a third-generation politician groomed from birth by an elite, conservative
family.

His first term was turbulent; shot through with scandals and discord, and
capped by an abrupt resignation that made him the latest in a succession of
short-lived Japanese prime ministers.

After initially suggesting he was stepping down for political reasons, he
subsequently acknowledged he was suffering an ailment later diagnosed as
ulcerative colitis.

– They called it ‘Abenomics’ –

The debilitating bowel condition necessitated months of treatment, but
was, he said, eventually overcome with the help of new medication.

Encouraged by Suga, he ran again, and the revolving prime ministerial door
brought him back to office in 2012.

But then it slammed shut behind him, ending a turbulent period when
leaders cycled through, sometimes at the rate of one-a-year.

With Japan still staggering from the effects of the 2011 tsunami and
subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima — and a brief opposition government
lashed for flip-flopping and incompetence — Abe offered a seemingly safe
pair of hands.

And he had a plan: Abenomics.

The scheme to revive Japan’s long-stalled economy — the world’s third
biggest, but more than two decades into stagnation — involved vast
government spending, massive monetary easing, and cutting red tape.

Abe also sought to boost the country’s flagging birth rate by making
workplaces more friendly to parents, particularly mothers, and pushed through
controversial consumption tax hikes to help finance nurseries and plug gaps
in Japan’s overstretched social security system.

While there was some progress with reform, the bigger structural problems
for the economy remained. Deflation proved stubborn, growth anaemic and the
economy was in recession even before the coronavirus wiped out remaining
gains.

Abe’s star waned further during the pandemic, with his approach criticised
as confused and slow, driving his approval ratings down to some of the lowest
of his tenure.

– ‘Our fight will continue’ –

On the international stage, he took a hard line on North Korea, but sought
a peacemaker role between the US and Iran.

He prioritised a close personal relationship with Donald Trump in a bid to
protect Japan’s key alliance from the US president’s “America First” mantra,
and tried to mend ties with Russia and China.

But the results were mixed: Trump is reportedly still eager to force Japan
to pay more for US troops stationed in the country, a deal with Russia on
disputed northern islands is elusive, and a plan to invite Xi Jinping for a
state visit has fallen by the wayside amid growing domestic discontent with
Beijing.

And while Abe has not repeated a 2013 visit to a controversial war shrine
that sparked regional anger, he has pursued a hard line with South Korea over
unresolved wartime disputes and continued to float plans to revise the
country’s pacifist constitution.

Throughout his tenure, he has weathered political storms including
cronyism allegations that dented his approval ratings but did little to
affect his power, in part thanks to the weakness of Japan’s political
opposition.

Abe will stay on as a lawmaker for now, with some speculation he could be
called on for diplomatic endeavours in the future, given Suga’s inexperience
with foreign affairs. On Monday, after the ruling party elected Suga his
successor, Abe pledged his support.

“Our fight will continue,” he said.

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