CANBERRA: Abe’s abrupt resignation on Friday as prime minister of Japan was a surprise to many but not entirely unexpected given his health issues and the precedent he set in 2007 with an equally sudden resignation on health grounds.
Other considerations behind his decision are also important. Most obvious was his unprecedented loss of popularity as prime minister in recent months.
Despite solid support rates for more than seven years, Abe presided over a steady decline in support for his Cabinet as 2020 marched onwards. January’s cherry blossom-viewing scandal that saw the use of public resources for his private political advantage marked an inauspicious start to the year.
Then coronavirus swept in. A Jiji Press opinion poll in August recorded an approval rating of just 32.7 per cent – close to the "red zone" of below 30 per cent, reached only once before during his prime ministership.
Numerous commentators attributed the trend to the public’s poor evaluation of the prime minister’s pandemic leadership, and it is clear that this was an important factor at work undermining his popular support.
MISSING IN ACTION AMID PANDEMIC
What was unprecedented was the uncharacteristically unresponsive way in which Abe reacted to the slide.
The particular decisions that Abe made to deal with the pandemic were criticised, such as those reflecting his ill-conceived judgement over where to strike the balance between shutting down to curb the spread of the virus and opening up to boost the economy.
Prefectural governors, such as Tokyo’s Yuriko Koike and Osaka’s Hirofumi Yoshimura, were praised for their clear articulation of the COVID-19 threat and their role in pressuring the dawdling Abe administration into calling a state of emergency.
Low levels of COVID-19 testing, confusion and slowness around stimulus payments and lagged roll-out of poor-quality face masks, derided as “Abenomasks”, all indicated a government with a weak grip on things.
Another important factor in play was the nature of Abe’s leadership at this crucial time. Abe was increasingly seen as “missing in action”. The headlines of Aug 5, for example, asked, “COVID-19 cases are climbing in Japan. Where is Shinzo Abe?”
Also noted was Abe’s reluctance to hold official news conferences and convene an extraordinary Diet session to discuss the government’s responses to the pandemic.
It looked as if Abe was deliberately trying to avoid personal accountability as prime minister on a critical issue for the nation while largely handing things over to the relevant ministers, such as Yasutoshi Nishimura, the Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, who was in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus and who held an extraordinary number of press conferences to provide information to the public.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also played a prominent role as de facto prime minister, with Abe openly called a “lame duck” – inconceivable a year ago – developments not helped by rumours that he was in poor health.
LACKLUSTRE PERFORMANCE AS PM
Far from scrambling to make amends with new and called-for government initiatives, Abe’s performance as prime minister remained lacklustre and disengaged.
The prime minister’s decision to step down suggests that helping his nation beat coronavirus did not rate highly as a policy issue for Abe. Rather, it was an unwelcome, energy-sapping, all-consuming diversion and an obstacle to achieving his historic mission as prime minister.
The long-held policy objectives that comprised Abe’s nationalist agenda were slipping ever more steadily and elusively from his grasp: Most importantly, revising the Article 9 “peace clause” of the Constitution to explicitly legitimise the existence of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, restoring Japanese sovereignty over the Russian-held Northern Territories and securing the return of Japanese abductees from North Korea.
Even his signature Abenomics programme was being scuppered by COVID-19 with the government facing difficult decisions in dealing with the economic fallout from the virus.
These considerations on top of his health were clearly crucial in accounting for Abe’s political unresponsiveness and his increasingly spiritless performance as prime minister. They all weighed into his decision to step down. Dealing with the coronavirus created a clear disjunction between the heavy policy demands being made of Abe and his own personal policy ambitions and goals.
Factors beyond Abe’s control – COVID-19 in combination with his personal health problems and a singularly unfavourable policy outlook for the next year – made it extremely unlikely that Abe could achieve his long-cherished goals even if he remained in office until the official end of his tenure in September 2021.
Now, after seven years and eight months, the longest run of any Japanese prime minister in the history of the Diet, his immediate successor is guaranteed office for only one year. This throws an element of uncertainty into what was a long period of Japanese political stability.
The tide of history had turned against Abe; he ran out of time and became a prime minister without a cause he could deliver.
Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of New South Wales, Canberra. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.