TOKYO, Sept. 12 — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s abrupt announcement on Wednesday afternoon that he would resign upset what was supposed to be an orderly end to the nationalist leader’s scandal- and gaffe-prone government and threw Japan’s already tense political situation into further disarray.
Mr. Abe, deeply unpopular, had already been written off by Japan’s political establishment and news media, his political future measured in months. The start of a new parliamentary session on Monday was supposed to usher in fierce debate with the newly powerful opposition Democratic Party, followed by probable deadlock over the Japanese military’s participation in the war in Afghanistan and then by Mr. Abe’s exit.
But his resignation’s timing — minutes before opposition leaders were scheduled to question him for the first time since the start of the parliamentary session on Monday — stunned Japan. Scrambling to find a viable successor, Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party will on Sept. 19 choose a new leader who, given its control of the lower house of Parliament, will automatically become Japan’s next prime minister.
Mr. Abe — who had described himself as a “politician who fights” — apparently had no stomach for it. As early as Monday, he had shared his wish to quit with his closest political confidant — Taro Aso, the party’s secretary general, who shares Mr. Abe’s ideological views and is now widely considered the front-runner to succeed him.
“In the current situation, it will be quite difficult to forcefully pursue policies based on the people’s support and trust,” Mr. Abe said, seeming at one point on the verge of tears and failing — television commentators and ordinary people alike said critically — to bow or apologize during his news conference.
““The timing of the resignation was all the more puzzling because Mr. Abe had steadfastly refused to resign or to dissolve Parliament and call a general election after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in an upper house election over the summer. He also reshuffled his cabinet two weeks ago in what was touted as a fresh start.
What is more, in a speech marking the start of the parliamentary session on Monday, Mr. Abe had laid out his agenda.
“The way he resigned was unprecedented,” said Jun Iio, a professor of government at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies here. “Unfortunately, even though Abe had some successes as prime minister, he will be remembered for the way he resigned. Other prime ministers resigned after putting up a good fight and made the reasons for their resignation very clear. But the way Abe resigned suggests he lacked the qualifications to be prime minister in the first place.”
“Mr. Aso said that Mr. Abe first mentioned to him directly his desire to quit on Monday. Mr. Aso said he told Mr. Abe that “the timing“ was not appropriate, but that Mr. Abe repeated his desire to resign on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday.
“His intention did not change at all over three days,“ Mr. Aso said in a separate news conference, deflecting questions about his plans to run in the Sept. 19 election for party leader.
Experts said pressure to soon call a general election — which must be held before September 2009 — is unlikely to diminish with a change of leadership.
“A new prime minister will benefit from a bounce in the polls, but that is unlikely to be enough,” said Takeshi Sasaki, a political scientist at Gakushuin University and a former president of the University of Tokyo. “Since the last general election was in 2005, this will be the second government without the voters’ direct endorsement. So the next prime minister will likely be forced to dissolve Parliament and call a general election, probably late this year or early next year.”
Possibly to deflect criticism of the sudden resignation, party officials said that Mr. Abe, 52, the first prime minister born after World War II, was suffering from poor health, though they provided no details.
Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has focused his attention on a contentious law that allows Japan’s naval forces to refuel American and other ships participating in the war in Afghanistan. The law will expire on Nov. 1 unless it is extended.
“There is no way that our thinking will change because of a change in the Liberal Democratic Party,” Mr. Ozawa said.
Opinion polls indicated that most Japanese opposed extending the law. And Mr. Ozawa tapped into a general unease that, under Mr. Abe and his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, Japan has grown too close to the United States militarily, even to the point of possibly violating its pacifist Constitution.
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