TOKYO, Sept. 12 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the nationalist leader whose vision of an unapologetically strong Japan sank amid scandals, incompetence and gaffes, announced today that he would step down.
The timing of the resignation took Japan by surprise. Even though Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party suffered a humiliating defeat in an upper house election over the summer, he had steadfastly refused to resign and had reshuffled his cabinet less than two weeks ago.
Mr. Abe’s resignation came only three days after the start of a current parliamentary session. In a speech at the start of the session on Monday and in news conferences, Mr. Abe had laid out plans for the future, including extending a law to allow Japan’s naval forces to participate in a mission in the Indian Ocean.
But as the parliamentary session started and the newly powerful main opposition Democratic Party showed no signs of yielding to Mr. Abe on this law, the situation looked increasingly bleak for Mr. Abe, and Japan’s media had already written him off.
“I determined that I should resign,” Mr. Abe said at a news conference this afternoon. Referring to the law on the Indian Ocean mission, he added: “We should seek a continued mission to fight terrorism under a new prime minister.”
Mr. Abe also said that he found it difficult to regain the public’s trust. His approval ratings, which had temporarily risen above 30 percent after his cabinet reshuffle, fell below that threshold again after Mr. Abe’s new agricultural minister resigned over misuse of public funds only a week after his appointment.
Japan is likely to enter a period of political flux with Mr. Abe’s departure.
Mr. Abe said he had instructed his party to choose a successor “as soon as possible.” Because his party has a huge majority in the lower house of Parliament, which selects the prime minister, the next prime minister will be a member of the Liberal Democratic Party.
The secretary general of the party, Taro Aso, who served as foreign minister until recently, is widely considered the front runner to succeed Mr. Abe.
Any successor would not have to dissolve parliament and call a general election until 2009, but will most likely face intense pressure to do so in the near future. The main opposition Democratic Party will be able to use its control of the upper house of Parliament to delay and block legislation, effectively forcing the governing party to call a general election and ask for a popular mandate.
The opposition leader, Ichiro Ozawa, has focused his attention on a contentious law that allows Japan’s naval forces to join a mission to refuel American and other ships participating in the war in Afghanistan. The law will expire on Nov. 1 unless it is extended.
The debate over the law is expected to be bruising. Opinion polls have shown that most Japanese opposed extending the law. And Mr. Ozawa tapped into a general unease that, under Mr. Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Japan had grown too close to the United States militarily, even to the point of possibly violating its pacifist Constitution.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Japan has passed special laws to circumvent its pacifist Constitution to participate in the American-led wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq. But the Japanese government has released few details about the nature of its assistance to the United States military, leading many opposition politicians to suggest that Japanese troops are in fact violating the Constitution.
Opposition politicians have suggested that Japan has refueled American vessels that were involved, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq. In addition, they have said that Japan’s air force — which has been transporting American troops between Kuwait and Baghdad — has clearly overstepped its stated mission of engaging in humanitarian activities.
Opposition politicians are expected to use their new power in the upper house of Parliament to demand more information about these military missions.
Prime Minister Abe to step down
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Wednesday told ruling party executives that he will step down as the nation's leader.
Abe, who was chosen prime minister in September last year, suffered a huge setback in the July 29 Upper House election, but he refused to step down.
His intentions to resign became known as the ruling coalition faces a tough time passing a bill to extend the anti-terror special measures law in the extraordinary Diet session.
Earlier in Sydney at the APEC forum, Abe told reporters that he would put his job on the line to continue the Maritime Self-Defense Force's refueling operations in the Indian Ocean.
An extension of the law is needed to continue that mission.
He also said continuing the refueling operations was an "international commitment."
Since he came into power, Abe's administration has been hit by a string of money scandals leading to the resignations of Cabinet ministers.
His government also came under heavy fire when the extent of the mess and confusion in the public pension system came to light.(IHT/Asahi: September 12,2007)