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Shinzo Abe: Japan’s longest-serving prime minister

Shinzo Abe smashed records as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

Abe remained a key voice in politics even after stepping down for a second time over his health
Abe remained a key voice in politics even after stepping down for a second time over his health - Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO
Abe remained a key voice in politics even after stepping down for a second time over his health - Copyright AFP Juan BARRETO
Shingo ITO, Sara HUSSEIN

Shinzo Abe smashed records as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, championing ambitious economic reform and forging diplomatic relationships as he dodged cronyism scandals and battled chronic health problems.

He remained a key voice in politics even after stepping down for a second time over his health, and was campaigning for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party when he was assassinated on July 8.

On Tuesday, a state funeral will honour the former leader who was shot dead by a gunman resentful of the Unification Church, a religious group to which he believed Abe had ties.

When Abe first became prime minister in 2006, he was a sprightly 52, becoming the youngest person to occupy the job in the postwar era.

He was seen as a symbol of change and youth, but also brought the pedigree of a third-generation politician groomed from birth by an elite, conservative family.

Abe’s one-year first term was turbulent, plagued by scandals and discord, and capped by an abrupt resignation.

After initially suggesting he was stepping down for political reasons, he acknowledged he was suffering from a condition later diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease.

– Abenomics –

The debilitating condition required months of treatment but was, Abe said, eventually overcome with the help of new medication.

He ran again, and Japan’s revolving prime ministerial door brought him back to office in 2012, ending a turbulent period in which leaders sometimes changed at a rate of one a year.

With Japan still staggering from the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima — and a brief opposition government lashed for flip-flopping and incompetence — Abe offered a seemingly safe pair of hands.

And he had a plan: Abenomics.

The scheme to revive Japan’s economy — the world’s third-biggest, but more than two decades into stagnation — involved vast government spending, monetary easing and cutting red tape.

Abe also sought to boost the country’s flagging birth rate by making workplaces more friendly to parents, particularly mothers.

He pledged to create “a society in which women shine”, and pushed through controversial consumption tax hikes to help finance nurseries and plug gaps in Japan’s overstretched social security system.

While there was some progress with reform, the economy’s bigger structural problems remained.

Deflation proved stubborn and the country was in recession even before the coronavirus struck in 2020.

Abe’s star waned further during the pandemic, with his response criticised as confused and slow, driving his approval ratings down to some of the lowest of his tenure.

– Political storms –

On the international stage, Abe pursued a hard line on North Korea, but sought a peacemaker role between the United States and Iran.

He prioritised a close personal relationship with Donald Trump in a bid to protect Japan’s key alliance from the then-US president’s “America First” mantra, and tried to mend ties with Russia and China.

The results were mixed. Trump still sought to make Japan pay more for US troops stationed in the country, while a deal with Russia on disputed northern islands stayed elusive, and a planned state visit by China’s Xi Jinping fell by the wayside.

Abe also took a hawkish stance with South Korea over unresolved wartime disputes, and continued to float plans to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Throughout his tenure, he weathered political storms including cronyism allegations that dented his approval ratings but did little to affect his power, in part thanks to the weakness of the opposition.

Abe had been due to stay on until late 2021, giving him an opportunity to see out one final event in his historic tenure — the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

But in a shock announcement, he stepped down in August 2020, with a recurrence of ulcerative colitis ending his second term, too.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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