Two days after his policy speech at the start of a session of parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Wednesday that he would step down. His resignation, analysts say, may augur a return to the weak leadership that characterized Japan before the tenure of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – but could also present an opportunity for the increasingly assertive opposition to shape Japan's agenda.
The resignation caps a long string of scandals among Mr. Abe's senior ministers as well as political setbacks for Mr. Abe, a nationalist who supported changing Japan's war-renouncing Constitution and was groomed by Mr. Koizumi for the leadership post. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost control of Japan's Upper House for the first time in its history in July, and his ministers' gaffes had worn thin with the Japanese public, with whom his approval ratings stand at about 30 percent.
"This certainly indicates a return to weak leadership in the LDP," says Akikazu Hashimoto, a senior research associate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. But the difference now, he says, is that Japan has a "different DPJ [opposition Democratic Party of Japan]."
Many people underestimated the significance of the victory of the DPJ over the LDP in the Upper House, Mr. Hashimoto adds, saying that it was the first phase of Japan's political power shift. "Mr. Abe's resignation means an end to the LDP politics. It is the second phase of Japan's political power shift."
Soon after Abe's announcement, the LDP announced it would hold a party election Sept. 19, which will effectively select a prime minister.
Abe entered office with strong approval ratings and quickly reached out to Japan's neighbors in the region with whom relations had been frosty under Koizumi. During his tenure, Abe passed laws bolstering patriotic education and upgrading the Defense Agency to a full ministry for the first time since World War II.
But the prime minister was to face a battle in parliament Wednesday, which has now been canceled, over a proposed extension of Japan's commitment to the controversial refueling mission in support of troops in Afghanistan. On Sunday, Abe threatened to resign if the move was not approved.
DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa, whose party controls the Upper House, has vowed to block any such action. Abe's inability to push forward virtually any element of his agenda, analysts say, contributed to his decision to step down.
"Mr. Abe was trying to get such a big task done. But he stepped into the mud, and he could not move forward," says Toshiyuki Shikata, a law professor at Teikyo University and former lieutenant general with the Self-Defense Forces.
"I decided a quick decision was necessary, and that a further delay would cause political confusion," Abe told a nationally televised news conference. "I find myself unable to keep my promises – I myself have become an obstacle to fulfilling those promises."
But his announcement still prompted disbelief. "It is very bad timing. This is really irresponsible," Mizuho Fukushima, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, told reporters. "He should have quit right after the Upper House elections."
In July, the LDP suffered a defeat, gaining only 37 seats, less than a third of the total of 121 seats, while the DPJ won 60 seats. The LDP did not even do well in rural areas, its traditional stronghold.
Even before Abe's announcement, politicians and analysts were speculating about a successor. Many analysts say the LDP suffers a talent shortage, with very few outstanding leadership candidates.
Attention has focused heavily on LDP Secretary General Taro Aso, a former foreign minister. An outspoken conservative and grandson of the late Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, he served as internal affairs minister and top planning chief under Koizumi.
Given the ongoing political upheaval, analysts expect the DPJ to keep pressuring the LDP to dissolve the Lower House and to call a general election.
"Feelings of hopelessness permeate the Japanese public. The public is saying, 'We are fed up,' " says Minoru Morita, a Tokyo-based political analyst. "The public cannot have much hope as long as the scandal-tainted LDP is in power."
The best way to avoid political confusion, he adds, is "to hold a general election. Let the public make a choice."
• Wire material was used in this report.