Japan's PM Shinzo Abe resigns, saying: 'I apologise from the bottom of my heart'

Speculation about Shinzo Abe's health had been growing after a number of hospital appointments and a long absence from public duties

Japan’s longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe announced his resignation on Friday due to his ill health, in a bombshell development that kicks off a leadership contest in the world's third-largest economy.

Mr Abe, 65, bowed in apology as he confirmed in a press conference that he was stepping down after nearly eight years at the political helm following a recurrence of a chronic inflammatory bowel condition.

"I apologise from the bottom of my heart that despite all of the support from the Japanese people, I am leaving the post with one full year left in my term and in the midst of various policies and coronavirus," he said.

His announcement brings to an end weeks of intense media speculation surrounding the health of Mr Abe, who has suffered from the condition ulcerative colitis since his teens.

It is Mr Abe’s second time to resign as prime minister over ill health, having previously ended a one-year stint in power in 2007 due to the same medical condition before returning to power in 2012.

Abe became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history in November 2019 Credit: AP

His departure is likely to spark a leadership contest in the world’s third largest economy at a time when the nation is already grappling with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party is likely to hold a vote to elect its next president in a leadership race to be called shortly, paving the way for a new prime minister to replace Mr Abe, who had been due to stay in power until September 2021.

Potential successors include a string of conservative LDP heavyweights, including former minister Shigeru Ishiba, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga and defence secretary Taro Kono.

Bowing deeply as he announced his resignation,  Mr Abe said: "I cannot be prime minister if I cannot make the best decisions for the people. I have decided to step down from my post."

He added: "It is gut wrenching to have to leave my job before accomplishing my goals."

Earlier in the week, Mr Abe appeared to hit the heights of his political career, as he became Japan’s longest serving prime minister in terms of consecutive days in office. Marking his 2,799th day in the role of prime minister, he eclipsed a previous record set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato nearly 50 years ago.

Potential celebrations, however, were eclipsed by a visit to a Tokyo hospital on the same day – the second hospital visit in ta week – fuelling intense media speculation surrounding his health condition.

Mr Abe’s departure comes at a time when his support ratings are at a record low, with widespread public discontent over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its impact on the economy and a string of ongoing political scandals.

When Mr Abe came to power for a second time in 2012, it brought a period of unexpected stability to Japan’s political landscape, following a revolving door scenario of six different prime ministers in as many years before his arrival.

Since then, conservative Mr Abe has strengthened Japan’s military, sought to counter China’s growing influence and was instrumental in winning a bid to host the now postponed 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

However, he is perhaps most renowned for his economic policies. His three-pronged strategy of so-called Abenomics aimed to defeat deflation and revive economic growth with hyper-easy monetary policy and fiscal spending.

During the press conference announcing his resignation, Mr Abe expressed regret at failing to resolve the longstanding issue of North Korean abductions as well as not yet carrying out his long-cherished dream of reforming the pacifist constitution.

“It is going to take a long time for Japan to see a long-standing administration again,” Tsutomu Soma, a bond trader at Monex Inc. in Tokyo, told Bloomberg. “Having a stable government had helped the country pursue various reforms, but political jitters could risk Japan’s position in the international arena.”