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August 17, 2020

Asia

JAPAN: Surprise hospital visit fuels speculation about Abe’s staying power

BY Tobias Harris

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  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an unexpected visit to a hospital on 17 August, which was subsequently characterized as a follow-up for an earlier exam.
  • Abe’s personal history – a chronic ailment contributed to his resignation from the premiership in 2007 – means that he faces a higher threshold to convince the public of his health.
  • However, while the hospital visit could lead to more discussion of the possibility that Abe resigns, one lesson of 2007 is that Abe could be willing to endure significant hardship before consenting to leave office.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prompted further speculation about his health when, on Monday, 17 August, he made an unexpected out-patient visit to a hospital for what was called a “routine checkup” and described as a follow-up appointment related to a full medical exam he received in June. Rumors about Abe’s health have circulated in tabloids for several weeks, but the visit, which came one day after his ally Akira Amari made headlines by voicing concerns that Abe is fatigued after working virtually without interruption since January, will likely lead to more questions from the media, opposition lawmakers, and even ruling party lawmakers about Abe’s fitness to remain in office.

In 2007, Abe’s first premiership ended after the stress of attempting to cling to power after an electoral defeat led to severe gastrointestinal distress related to ulcerative colitis, which Abe had been diagnosed with as a child and which had occasionally led to his hospitalization. When Abe returned to power in 2012, he had to convince his own Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the public that this time would be different, thanks to a newly approved drug and a new fitness regimen. While tabloids would occasionally speculate about his health at tense moments during his tenure, for the last eight years concerns about Abe’s health have not been in a factor in his administration.

But Abe’s personal history means that the public will more readily believe rumors about his health – and he therefore faces a high bar to prove his ability to perform the duties of his office. Thus, while Abe returned to his private residence on Monday evening after seven hours at the hospital, the report quickly rippled through the ranks of the LDP. The party is not necessarily prepared to abandon its leader. Not only does the bulk of the LDP feel loyal to Abe, who has led the LDP to six straight national election victories, but the party also fears that it would be weakened by the chaotic transition that would follow a sudden resignation. As a result, several leading LDP politicians, including Finance Minister Taro Aso and LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, echoed Amari’s call that it was imperative for the prime minister to take several days off after canceling his annual August vacation due to the pandemic.

While Abe’s health will now be subject to greater scrutiny, it is not yet guaranteed that he will be forced to resign before his term ends in September 2021. If Abe’s health does not render him obviously unfit to serve, he could continue to cling to power. With no general election required until October 2021, there is not an obvious event that would trigger his resignation.

Public opinion will therefore play a more decisive role in determining whether Abe can survive. While his public support has been net negative since May, his approval has stabilized at roughly 33%. At that level, he has likely shed the support of most independents and soft LDP supporters but continues to enjoy the support of core LDP supporters. On the one hand, his remaining supporters are unlikely to abandon him easily; on the other hand, if his core supporters begin abandoning the government, his position could quickly become untenable, particularly since the LDP’s support could begin eroding as well. For now, however, the LDP’s support has been stable, giving the party little reason to push for Abe’s resignation. Assuming Abe is still able to serve, the party is still most likely to close ranks around him, allow him to serve as a caretaker managing the pandemic and economic recovery, and hope that his successor is able to lead the LDP to an electoral victory during a honeymoon period next year.

Finally, having overcome the humiliation of resignation in 2007 – and the mockery he endured after he confessed that severe gastrointestinal distress was a factor in his exit – Abe will undoubtedly be determined to avoid a similar outcome. The run-up to Abe’s resignation in 2007 was revealing. Despite clear signs in August 2007 that he was struggling physically, he persisted for nearly six weeks after losing the 2007 upper house elections in late July and overcame numerous calls from LDP members to resign before he felt he could no longer carry on in office. In short, Abe may be capable of enduring significant personal and political hardship before he would agree to resign.

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