Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has announced his intention to resign, citing persistent health concerns.
Mr Abe, 65, has visited hospital twice in the past two weeks and told a news conference that a chronic illness has resurfaced.
“I cannot be prime minister if I cannot make the best decisions for the people,” he told reporters. “I have decided to step down from my post.” He apologised to Japanese citizens “from the bottom of my heart”.
The prime minister earlier met party leaders at the headquarters of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to tell them of his intention to step aside, the party’s general secretary said.
His resignation will trigger a hotly contested leadership race within the party, likely to be decided in two or three weeks. Mr Abe is expected to stay in post until a new leader has been named and formally accepted by a vote in parliament.
Mr Abe became Japan’s longest serving prime minister in November. His first term ended abruptly 13 years ago because of health problems, fuelling concerns about his recent hospital trips.
The first was a brief trip in June. Then, on 17 August, he spent seven hours in hospital for a visit described by his office as a “day-long checkup during the summer break, as he has hardly had any days off recently and would like to be in his best condition after the break is over”.
His third trip to hospital was on Monday and triggered a new wave of speculation in Japanese media that his health was declining, even as he insisted he was there “to get detailed results from last week’s checkup and have additional examination”, and that he planned “to keep working hard”.
Top cabinet officials – including the finance minister and deputy prime minister Taro Aso – said publicly that Mr Abe was overworked and badly needed rest.
During the past week, Mr Abe has only spent a few hours a day in his office and only in the afternoon. Political journalists said he looked tired and was moving slower than usual.
Mr Abe has previously acknowledged having ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager and has said the condition was controlled with treatment. He did not make it clear if this was related to his recent health issues or hospital visits.
Mr Abe’s term was due to end in September 2021. On Monday, he became his country’s longest serving prime minister for consecutive days in office, overtaking the record set by Eisaku Sato, his great-uncle, who served 2,798 days from 1964 to 1972.
Long before Friday’s announcement, speculation and political manoeuvring had begun to focus on the post-Abe administration. His personal approval ratings have taken a battering in recent months as a result of public anger at the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy, as well as a number of political scandals.
Media surveys place Shigeru Ishiba, a hawkish 63-year-old former defence minister and Mr Abe’s arch rival, as the favourite to be next leader, though he is less popular within the ruling party than he is with the general public.
Other potential successors include the former foreign minister Fumio Kishida, defence minister Taro Kono, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, and economic revitalisation minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, the latter of whom is in charge of coronavirus measures.
The last time Mr Abe left office it was followed by an era known as “revolving door” politics, with six different leaders in as many years. His return to office in 2012 came with a promise of stability and a vow to revitalise the economy with “Abenomics”, a mix of fiscal stimulus, structural reforms and monetary easing.
Boris Johnson was among the world leaders to respond to Mr Abe’s resignation on Friday. In a tweet, the British prime minister said Mr Abe had “achieved great things as PM of Japan – for his country and the world”.
“Under his stewardship the UK-Japan relationship has gone from strength to strength in trade, defence and our cultural links,” he wrote. “Thank you for all your years of service and I wish you good health.”
The Kremlin regretted Mr Abe’s decision to step down, spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, describing the working relations between the Japanese leader and Vladimir Putin as “brilliant”.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said Mr Abe “was always friendly to Taiwan, whether on policy or the rights and interests of Taiwan’s people. We value his friendly feelings towards Taiwan and hope he is healthy.”
And South Korea’s presidential Blue House spokesperson Kang Min-seok said: “We regret the sudden resignation announcement of Prime Minister Abe, who has left many meaningful achievements as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, and has also especially played a large role for development in South Korea and Japan’s bilateral relations.
“We wish the prime minister a quick recovery. Our government will continue cooperation with the new prime minister and the new cabinet for improved ties with Japan.”
Additional reporting by agencies