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August 24, 2020

Asia

JAPAN: Is Abe’s second hospital visit a sign that history will repeat?

BY Tobias Harris

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( 6 mins)
  • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to the hospital on Monday, 24 August, his second unexpected hospital visit in as many weeks.
  • However, without more information about Abe’s condition, it is difficult to forecast how the increasingly fluid situation will unfold in the immediate term.
  • If Abe were to resign suddenly, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would move quickly to choose a caretaker leader to serve out his term.

Abe’s hospital visit was reportedly to receive the results of exams conducted last week, which were in turn a follow-up to a comprehensive physical exam Abe received in June. The visit was unusual in part because it meant he missed a ceremony to mark his latest endurance record, matching his great-uncle Eisaku Sato’s record for the longest consecutive tenure as prime minister. As such, it has fueled rumors that Abe is battling an episode of his chronic ulcerative colitis and fed speculation that the prime minister resign in the near term, with nearly a year remaining in his term as LDP leader.

While the situation is fluid, it is clear that Abe’s health is now the single most important political issue in Japan, as his allies, rivals, and aspiring successors wait to see whether he will survive. In the meantime, the government’s attempt to ignore tabloid reports about Abe’s health and downplay his hospital visits has clearly backfired, and the prime minister will now be subject to greater scrutiny from the press and opposition lawmakers demanding answers about the prime minister’s condition during a still-raging pandemic and historically severe recession.

If Abe resigns

It is entirely possible that the two hospital visits are the prelude to an announcement – perhaps sometime within the next 5-10 days – that Abe is unable to serve out his term and will resign. Whether this scenario unfolds is entirely up to Abe and his self-assessment of his ability to perform his duties. LDP members are not calling for his resignation and his approval ratings, while still net negative, have stabilized after the large drops earlier in the summer. His resignation may therefore come, as in 2007, with little advanced warning beyond what is already known. Abe’s breaking his great-uncle’s longevity record may make him more willing to consider resignation.

There are credible rumors to suggest that, in the event of a sudden resignation, the LDP is prepared to transition to a caretaker prime minister who would serve out the remainder of Abe’s term as party leader until September 2021. To avoid public censure during a pandemic and a historically severe recession, the LDP will move quickly to choose its new leader and avoid a fierce and wide-open succession battle. LDP rules give the party’s executive considerable discretion to decide when and how to elect a new leader in the event of a vacancy. For example, if it is especially urgent, the party can suspend the requirement that the party president be publicly elected and instead select a new president at a meeting of the party’s Diet members, giving senior party officials more control over the process.

There may, however, be some debate over who the caretaker leader should be. Finance Minister Taro Aso wants another chance to serve as prime minister after his 2008-2009 premiership ended in defeat. His age (79) makes him an unlikely candidate in an open leadership race, but he could prevail in an intra-party battle to serve out Abe’s term, not least because his faction is the party’s second largest and he may be able to rely on a deep if complicated relationship with Abe. However, it is conceivable that Aso could face opposition from within the party; the gaffe-prone Aso would not be popular with backbenchers facing a general election no later than October 2021. Accordingly, a credible alternative could be Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who at 71 is younger than Aso (although still on the older side for an LDP leader), has a better public reputation than Aso, and, after eight years as the government’s most important decision maker aside from Abe, may be viewed as a more competent steward given the challenges a caretaker prime minister would face from day one. Suga has drawn increasingly close to LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai, one of the most important kingmakers in the party, suggesting that an Aso leadership bid would not go unopposed. However, Suga would be an underdog, if only because of factional strength: Abe’s Hosoda faction and Aso’s faction have 153 members, only 45 votes short of an absolute majority of the LDP’s 395 lawmakers who would vote in a hypothetical emergency election. Factional unity is not guaranteed, but an insurgent Suga campaign would still face an uphill battle to cobble together a winning majority. While this selection process would address the immediate need for new leadership, it would merely delay a contentious fight to determine the party’s direction in the post-Abe era.

Abe survives?

Despite speculation about his condition, Abe went to work after his hospital visit and Suga told reporters that he had not noticed any change in the prime minister’s condition. The official line is that his condition is not dire. While it seems certain that Abe is suffering from some ailment, his government’s approach has been to stonewall – resisting calls for a full accounting of the prime minister’s condition and rejecting the opposition’s demand to convene an extraordinary session of the Diet as soon as possible – in order to buy Abe more time to relax and recover. The hospital visits seem to suggest that this approach is not working but without more information it is possible that the hospital visits were part of the process of monitoring his recovery. As argued previously, Abe could be willing to go to great lengths to avoid a repeat of 2007, when his condition contributed to his resignation after a year in office.

If Abe does not announce his resignation in the immediate term, the most significant signs to watch for will be whether he is able to resume normal business, including carrying out a cabinet and LDP leadership reshuffle in early September and resuming meetings with foreign dignitaries.

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