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Shinzo Abe resigns in the middle of the Corona crisis - and leaves Japan without a leader

The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigns for health reasons during the biggest economic crisis of the post-war period. The constitutional reform he favored did not succeed.

Just recently, Shinzo Abe surpassed his great-uncle Eisaku Sato as head of government with the longest term in office, which fills him with pride. The 65-year-old Abe has been running the country since the end of 2012, has repeatedly won electoral successes with his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and, especially at the beginning, created a spirit of optimism. Visibly exhausted and unsettled, the outgoing Prime Minister also admitted at a press conference on Friday that there had been failures in his almost eight-year term of office, which despite everything was characterized by continuity.

The chance to initiate constitutional reform in such a long period of government has been wasted. To date, not an iota has been changed to the constitution dictated by the victorious Americans at the end of the Pacific War. The LDP currently has a strong majority in the lower and upper houses, but without a broad consensus among the Japanese people, the controversial Paragraph 9, which stipulates the renunciation of warfare for all time, cannot be eradicated. It has been missed to sound out the pros and cons of a constitutional revision with discussion forums that extend far beyond parliament.

To come to terms with South Korea

While the security axis with the USA continues to hold, relations with South Korea have deteriorated during the Abe administration. A renewed rapprochement is very important for the entire region, including China and Russia, in order to put North Korea's ruler Kim Jong Un in his place. Seoul and Tokyo have to jump over their shadows.

Abe has tangible successes in international trade policy. A free trade agreement with the European Union and the adherence to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) despite the departure of the United States provided impetus. Because of its island location and the advanced aging of its population, Japan is even more dependent on free trade and direct market access to emerging countries. Abe recognized this early on. Perhaps Washington will later warm up again to the TPP project, which was supported by former President Barack Obama.

Public finances out of hand

The balance sheet for the economic policy program, which was launched immodestly in 2012 as “Abenomics”, is mixed. In essence, it was about an extraordinarily expansive fiscal and monetary policy as well as structural reform promises. The start was made to measure, because in anticipation of ultra-low interest rates, the stock exchange began to soar in 2012 even before the change of government. During Abe's reign, the Nikkei 225 index has advanced 130 percent, which also reflects an emerging entrepreneurial spirit.

A few years followed with modest growth rates, which in view of the declining working population could not be taken for granted. Because the state finances are in a desperate state, Abe pushed through the unpopular but necessary increase in VAT in two steps from 5 to 10 percent. Other reforms, for example in agricultural and labor market policy, remained piecemeal.

In the middle of the Corona crisis, Abe is now giving up the steering wheel, which creates a lot of uncertainty. It is an untimely exit. The fight against the epidemic calls for vigorous measures and good coordination between the Tokyo central administration and the governors in the prefectures. Wing fights among LDP grandees who, after many years, see their chance, are the last thing Japan needs now. Hopefully, Finance Minister Taro Aso, as Deputy Prime Minister, will ensure calm and discipline during the transition period.