Takehiko Kambayashi –
The timing of the milestone couldn’t have been worse. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister on Monday, in the midst of his government’s struggles to contain another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few days earlier, Abe saw Japan’s economy in the second quarter shrink a record annualized 27.8 per cent, marking the third straight quarterly contraction, due both to the pandemic and a consumption tax hike last year.
In addition, Abe had to return to a hospital “for additional tests” on Monday, a week after a “regular checkup,” he said, sparking concerns about his health.
“I believe his health conditions are serious as he repeatedly visited the hospital,” Tokyo-based independent political analyst Minoru Morita said.
“Abe did not look well” when the 87-year-old veteran political analyst dined with him and others in late July, he recalled.
In July 2007, an intestinal disease called ulcerative colitis forced Abe to abruptly step down as prime minister, only one year into the job.
Abe, who returned to power in December 2012, marked 2,799 consecutive days in office as prime minister on Monday.
He exceeded the previous record, set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato, who served from November 1964 to July 1972 — a period of high economic growth in Japan.
In late May, Abe lauded Japan’s “strength” when he ended a coronavirus state of emergency in the country.
Without compulsory restrictions seen in other countries, “we have succeeded in bringing the current wave of infections almost to an end in as little as a month and a half. I believe this has truly demonstrated the strength of the Japan model,” Abe told a news conference on May 25.
Two months later, Japan’s new daily caseload broke the previous record of 714 cases marked in April during the state of emergency.
Instead of tightening social distancing measures, Abe’s government launched a controversial travel promotion campaign to reinvigorate the tourism industry and local economies hit hard by the pandemic, although Tokyo was excluded from the programme due to a spike in infections there.
Frustrated at the campaign, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said it was like Abe’s government “is turning on an air-conditioner and a heater at the same time.”
In August, Japan witnessed a massive spike in the coronavirus as the number of daily new coronavirus infections exceeded 1,000 cases 15 times, including a record 1,601 on August 7, according to the Health Ministry.
Experts and opposition lawmakers urged Abe to convene an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss measures to deal with the resurgence of the coronavirus. But the prime minister has refused to do so.
The approval rating for Abe’s Cabinet stood at 36 per cent, down from 38.8 per cent a month ago, according to a weekend survey conducted by Kyodo News.
Under Abe, whose government doubled the country’s consumption tax to 10 per cent, his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has continued to win elections thanks to “the hopelessly fragmented opposition,” Akikazu Hashimoto, former political science professor at JF Oberlin University in Tokyo, said.
“Voter turnout has been so low as many people are disenchanted with the opposition camp and a lack of new leaders in the LDP,” he said.
In the 2019 upper house elections, voter turnout stood at 48.8 per cent, the lowest in 24 years.