Mr Abe has surpassed his great-uncle, Sato Eisaku, to become the longest-serving prime minister in a single stint since Japan established the role in the late 19th century. His abrupt departure, more than a year before his third term as party leader was set to end, has thrust the country into a period of uncertainty.
So, who is favourite to fill his shoes in this role which pays $255K? A leadership election is expected to be held very quickly. The winner will remain in office until the end of Mr Abe’s term, before facing re-election as the party leader next September. A contender is Ishiba Shigeru, a former defence and agriculture minister who is popular among voters and the Liberal Democratic Party’s members, but not among its MPs. Kishida Fumio, the LDP policy chief, is said to be Mr Abe’s preferred candidate, but has thus far failed to inspire broader support.
Whoever takes over has quite a job on hand. Covid-19 put the Olympics on hold and sent the economy reeling. GDP shrank by a record 7.8 per cent in the second quarter of this year compared with the first; in inflation-adjusted terms, economic output is lower than when Mr Abe became prime minister in 2012.
His successor’s immediate task will be managing the impact of Covid-19. That may prove more straightforward than the long-term challenges he will inherit: A colossal public debt, a shrinking population, an aggressive neighbour in China and an unpredictable ally in America. Tackling them will be made easier by what may be Mr Abe’s most significant legacy: The centralisation of decision-making power in the prime minister’s office.
In his departure statement, Mr Abe said he leaves several important objectives unaccomplished. He had a lifelong goal of amending some pacifist clauses of the constitution that America imposed on Japan after the second world war. He was also hoping to solve a long-running territorial dispute with Russia and bringing back Japanese kidnapped by North Korea.
This unexpected change of command adds to the worries we should all have at this time. Let’s not forget we are only weeks away from the election of the next president of the US and around the corner in 2021 we will have a new leader in Germany when Angela Merkel steps down.
America, Japan and Germany account for 35pc of world GDP and the last thing we need at this time of a pandemic is uncertainty of this scale. In a crisis the added uncertainty of future leadership on this scale is something none of us would wish to add to our woes.
Holding an election during a pandemic will be tough and there will be incentives for the disgruntled to challenge its legitimacy. Witness what is happening in America where already Donald Trump is discrediting the election process as flawed even before it takes place.
We are in a long, hard and depressing slog dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. Let’s hope and pray the leaders next year in Japan, Germany and America will provide the kind of leadership most urgently needed at this time of crisis.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]