Embattled Japanese PM stepping down

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Wednesday he will resign, ending a troubled year-old government that has suffered a string of damaging scandals and a humiliating electoral defeat.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Wednesday he will resign, ending a troubled year-old government that has suffered a string of damaging scandals and a humiliating electoral defeat.

A Japanese man reads a special edition newspaper announcing the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo Wednesday. ((David Guttenfelder/Associated Press))

Abe said he was quitting to pave the way for ruling and opposition parties to work together to approve the extension of Tokyo's naval mission in support of the NATOmission in Afghanistan.

"In the present situation it is difficult to push ahead with effective policies that win the support and trust of the public," Abe said in a nationally televised news conference. "I have decided that we need a change in this situation."

Abe, a nationalist whose support rating has plunged to 30 per cent, also cited the ruling party's defeat in July 29 elections, in which the opposition took control of the upper house of Parliament.

The prime minister said he had instructed ruling party leaders to immediately search for a replacement, but he did not announce a date for his departure from office.

His former foreign minister, Taro Aso, is considered a front-runner to replace him, though Aso said it was too soon for him to comment.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced it would use a streamlined election process to choose a successor. Kyodo News agency reported the party planned an election for a leader next Wednesday.

The party leader is guaranteed to be elected as prime minister because of the ruling party's control of the powerful lower house of Parliament.

Faced battle in parliament

The sudden resignation came less than a month after Abe reshuffled his cabinet in a bid to recover public support. He had been adamant that he would not step down to take responsibility for his party's electoral defeat.

Abe announced his departure just as the government faced a battle in parliament over whether to extend the country's Afghanistan mission work in the Indian Ocean. Just days earlier, he said he would quit if he failed to win parliamentary passage of legislation extending the mission.

On Wednesday, Abe suggested that his departure could aid passage of the bill.

"I have pondered how Japan should continue its fight against terrorism," Abe said Wednesday. "I now believe we need change. So Japan must continue its fight against terrorism under a new prime minister."

The United States has turned up the pressure on Japan to extend the mission. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer met with Japanese cabinet officials, including Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura, earlier Wednesday to make Washington's case.

Criticized for quitting

Theopposition criticized Abe for quitting just as the next parliamentary session was heating up.

"I've been a politician for nearly 40 years, but I think this is the first time that a prime minister has remained in office after the ruling party lost a majority … and expressed his resignation right before parliamentary questioning," said Ichiro Ozawa, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

Abe's resignation marked a rapid fall from power for a prime minister who came into office a year ago with ambitious plans to repair frayed relations with Asian neighbors, revise the 1947 constitution and bolster Japan's role in international diplomatic and military affairs.

The prime minister, whose grandfather was premier and whose father was a foreign minister, initially met with success in fence-mending trips last autumn to China and South Korea. He also passed laws bolstering patriotic education and upgrading the defence agency to a full ministry for the first time sincethe Second World War.

String of scandals

But a string of scandals starting late last year quickly eroded his support. Four cabinet ministers have been forced to resign over the past nine months and one — his agriculture minister — committed suicide over a money scandal.

Abe's government also has been fiercely criticized over 50 million missing pension records.

In such a weakened state, Abe may have feared he wouldn't have the clout to win passage of the Afghan mission, said Eiken Itagaki, a political analyst and writer.

"He has run out of political capital," Itagaki said. "So he bolted in the hope that a more experienced successor can save the mission and sort out the mess."

It also was a sharp reversal of fortunes for the ruling party, which has controlled Japan almost uninterruptedly since it was formed in 1955.