There is no sense of excitement among those working around Prime Minister Shinzo Abe although he is set to overtake his great-uncle, Eisaku Sato, as the country’s longest continuously serving prime minister on Monday.
This is because concerns about the prime minister’s health are once again growing, making the future prospect of his administration uncertain.
Speculation of Abe stepping down within the year is starting to increase within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with some members bracing for the possibility of a sudden change in the situation.
Abe will on Monday mark his 2,799th consecutive day in office since he retook the prime ministership in late 2012, passing Sato, who served in the position for 2,798 straight days between Nov. 9, 1964, and July 7, 1972.
The prime minister previously assumed the post in late September 2006, but quit a year later due partly to worsening symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a chronic condition.
An email was sent to LDP executives from the office for the ruling party’s secretary-general on Thursday, informing them of the postponement of a party to celebrate Abe for his record-breaking tenure, which had been planned for next Thursday.
The celebration party was to be organized by LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai.
“We will come under fire if we hold the party at a time when the novel coronavirus is spreading in the country again,” a close aide to Nikai said of the reason for the postponement.
Meanwhile, a party official saw it differently, saying that the postponement is for allowing Abe to “take a rest.” Due to his health issues, however, an aide to Abe said that the feat “does not matter at all now.”
In November 2019, Abe became the country’s longest-serving prime minister in terms of the total number of days in office, including the one-year first stint, surpassing the previous record held by Taro Katsura, who was prime minister in the early 1900s.
Concerns about Abe’s health began to grow again last Monday when he visited a hospital in Tokyo where he stayed seven and a half hours for a medical checkup.
While the state of health of a prime minister, which could affect the fate of the administration, is considered a top secret, it was very rare that Abe would undergo such a long medical examination without trying to hide the hospital visit.
Upon arriving at the prime minister’s office Wednesday to resume work after a short summer break, Abe told reporters, “I took the medical checkup to ensure that I’m in good health.”
But few took the comment at face value. A senior government official said, “It’s true that the prime minister is tired,” while an LDP executive noted that his condition appears to be serious.
The dominant view in the LDP is that Abe, also president of the party, is seeing symptoms of his ulcerative colitis worsening due to fatigue attributable to hard work related to the fight against the novel coronavirus crisis.
Some sources said that the prime minister may accept advice from aides for him to take a rest.
However, a government official said, “If his health does not recover, then there could be a decision by the prime minister,” hinting at the possibility of the situation taking a sudden twist.
As the outlook for the administration is increasingly uncertain, some in the LDP have started to make moves behind the scenes.
A heavyweight in an LDP faction called on its member lawmakers to strengthen the unity of the intraparty group, saying, “It remains to be seen what will happen.”
Nikai and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held a dinner meeting on Thursday. They held a similar meeting also in June and July. A source close to the LDP secretary-general said, “They probably want to lay the groundwork for a scenario that Suga (would succeed) if something happens to Abe.”
At a recent meeting with a senior administration official, a veteran LDP lawmaker who is close to the prime minister’s office showed a plan to look into past cases of LDP leadership elections being held in a simplified format.
A provision in the party rules of the LDP stipulates that in case the party’s president is unable to perform his or her duties and the situation is urgent, a successor can be elected by LDP lawmakers and heads of the party’s prefectural chapters instead of through the full-scale election process, which also involves the participation by rank-and-file party members.
Apparently behind such moves to seek the simplified formula are attempts by some to block former LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, who enjoys broad-based support from local party members, from gaining in popularity as a potential candidate to succeed Abe.
In response, a senior member of the LDP faction led by Ishiba issued a warning, saying: “If the LDP leadership election is carried out in a simplified format, rank-and-file members will turn their backs to the party. We cannot tolerate the process being implemented effectively behind closed doors.”
On Tuesday night, Ishiba held a meeting with LDP parliamentary affairs chief Hiroshi Moriyama, who has strong connection with both Nikai and Suga.
A power game in the LDP could intensify depending on the health condition of Abe, pundits said.
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