On August 28, 2020, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vacated the prime ministerial seat as a result of a resurgence of a chronic illness - the same condition that had led him to quit his stint as the PM in 2007 only three days after the new parliament session had begun. In his address to the Japanese populace, he apologized to them for resigning from his position almost a year before his term was supposed to end, but it was a necessary move, in his opinion, as he did not want “poor health to lead to wrong political decisions”.
His return to power in 2012 was seen as an end to the revolving door leadership in which Japan witnessed 5 Prime Ministers in as many years. He brought about political stability in a society that was riddled with administrative dysfunction and an atmosphere of “power juggling” between plutocrats. Abe’s rise to power in 2012 was majorly hinged on his promise to steer the Japanese economy out of a deflationary rabbit hole by enacting a set of economic reforms. The economy had been on an edge for over 20 years, since the collapse of the bubble economy in 1990. Abe and the newly appointed head of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda, worked together to revitalize the long-static economy by introducing policy packages which comprised of the following three main linchpins:
Monetary easing Fiscal spending Deregulation to promote private investments
This stimulating package of economic reformation policies is popularly nicknamed as “Abenomics”. He had also vowed to pull as many more women as possible in the workforce which was commonly termed as “womenomics”. However, policy experts and analysts have held that Abenomics has been particularly disappointing in terms of major structural reforms and that the administration’s efforts to turn things around for the economy have been unfolding at a very slow pace.
Abe - A Pragmatic Diplomat
On the diplomatic front, Abe has done a commendable job and managed to balance various diplomatic ties in the larger interests of domestic prosperity. Abe is well-renowned for maintaining his kinship with leaders of Japan’s traditional partners, the United States and China, despite being aware of both their propensities for asserting supremacy. Abe was the first world leader to meet U.S. President Donald Trump after his election to the post in November 2016. He had also visited Beijing in October 2018 to meet Xi Jinping despite popular opprobrium.
Abe has been mindful of not taking the bait despite the capriciousness of the American leader. In 2017, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the world’s largest free trade deal covering 40% of the global economy. In the absence of U.S. leadership, Abe took charge and salvaged the agreement. He synergized an 11-nation free trade zone that went beyond the traditional domain of trade tariffs and incorporated other areas such as intellectual property rights, rights of workers, and the environment.
However, one of Abe’s most cherished policy ambitions was to revise the postwar Constitution to amend Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. This is the article that curtails Japan’s right to maintain and manage a military force. Most conservatives have touted Abe’s vision to revise this provision and let Japan embark on a new journey. However, most Japanese people do not back this proposal. In place of an armed force, Japan has a Self Defence Force which is one of the most powerful military forces. However, a 2015 legislation led to Abe’s administration reinterpreting the Constitution, without formally amending it, which allowed the Self Defence Force to fight overseas for the first time since World War 2. Under Abe’s rule, Japan also facilitated defence spending to bolster the role of the Self Defence Force.
An Unloved Leader
Despite reinventing Japanese politics, economy and society to what it is today, Abe’s popularity in Japan is highly debatable. It is the TINA (there is no alternative) factor that has played a monumental role in Abe’s hold over political power. This means that in the absence of a strong Opposition, the Japanese voter has had no other choice. More recently, Abe has drawn condemnation from the Japanese people for his weak handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is feared that with the resignation of the man who reinstated Japan’s position in a changing geopolitical landscape, the country might return to its erstwhile revolving door leadership. There are still speculations about who Abe’s successor might be, as Japan stands in a precarious position.