Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday described as “gut-wrenching” his illness-induced decision to step down as premier after seven years and eight months in office.
The 65-year-old told a news conference that he had felt fatigued in mid-July.
He was diagnosed with a recurrence of an intestinal illness, called ulcerative colitis, earlier this month after visiting a hospital twice.
In July 2007, the disease forced Abe to abruptly quit as prime minister, only one year into the job.
He returned to power in December 2012.
“It’s gut-wrenching to leave my job before achieving my goals,” Abe said, before listing the achievements that remained beyond his government’s grasp.
Among them, he listed his failure to alter Japan’s pacifist constititution, conclude a treaty with Russia following a territorial spat, or resolve decades-old questions surrounding the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea.
The premier will remain in office until his successor is chosen, he added.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will decide on Tuesday on how to hold a leadership election, Kyodo News reported, citing unnamed sources.
Possible successors include former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba, 63, who also served as the party’s secretary general, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, 63, and Defence Minister Taro Kono, 57.
On Monday, the day Abe officially became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, he had to revisit the hospital for additional tests, a week after a regular check-up there.
Despite few significant accomplishments, he marked 2,799 consecutive days in office as prime minister on Monday.
His resignation comes amid a historic recession and a resurgence of the coronavirus.
He surpassed the previous record, set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who served from November 1964 to July 1972 – a period of high economic growth in Japan.
Since Abe’s abrupt resignation in 2007, Japan had seen six premiers, including Abe, in as many years.
Under Abe, whose government has doubled Japan’s consumption tax to 10 per cent, the LDP has continued to win elections mainly thanks to the opposition remaining fragmented.
Rocked by the pandemic and last year’s consumption tax hike, Japan’s economy – the world’s third-largest – shrank in the second quarter by a record 27.8 per cent on the year, marking the third quarterly contraction in a row.
Abe offered an apology on Friday as he steps down in the midst of the country’s struggles to contain another wave of the coronavirus.
In August, the country’s number of daily new infections exceeded 1,000 cases 15 times, including a record 1,601 on Aug. 7, according to the Health Ministry.
Instead of tightening social-distancing measures, Abe’s government launched a controversial travel promotion campaign in July to reboot the tourism industry and local economies devastated by the pandemic, although Tokyo was excluded from the programme due to a spike in infections there.
Experts and opposition lawmakers repeatedly urged the prime minister to convene an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss measures to deal with the resurgence of the coronavirus. But he refused to do so.
The approval rating for Abe’s cabinet stood at 36 per cent, down from 38.8 per cent a month ago, according to a weekend survey conducted by Kyodo News.
Allies in Europe paid tribute to the outgoing premier.
“I would like to thank PM @AbeShinzo for the close and strong partnership the #EU & #Japan have built under his leadership,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, tweeted.
“Thank you @AbeShinzo for your dedication & contribution to enhancing EU-Japan relations.
Under your leadership, our partnership has never been stronger or more crucial. I wish you good health,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, wrote on Twitter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she had learned of Abe’s resignation with regret.
“You have always been a constructive and reliable partner in our common commitment to multilateralism, free trade, peaceful settlement of disputes and a rules-based order,” Merkel said, and wished Abe a speedy recovery and good health.