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Japanese PM Abe quits after year of scandal, crisis

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe abruptly announced his resignation yesterday after a year in power dogged by scandals, an election rout and a crisis over Japan's support for US-led operations in Afghanistan.

The hawkish Mr Abe, who took office promising to boost Japan's global security profile, had seen his clout dwindle after a drubbing in upper house elections in July, but the announcement came as a bolt out of the blue.

"I determined today that I should resign," a weary-looking Mr Abe told a news conference.

Senior officials said health was a factor in the decision but Mr Abe said a new Prime Minister would be better placed to resolve a deadlock over extending a controversial mission to support US military efforts in Afghanistan.

Mr Abe, at 52 Japan's youngest Prime Minister since the end of World War II, reshuffled his Cabinet only last month to rekindle public approval, but a poll this week showed support was stuck below 30 per cent.

"There are many things I reflect on," the soft-spoken grandson of another Prime Minister said. "It is my responsibility that my old and new cabinet could not secure the public's trust."

Japanese stocks fell and the yen dipped briefly on concerns about political uncertainty.

Chief Cabinet Minister Kaoru Yosano told reporters that Mr Abe's health was one reason for the departure.

"He was doing his best but I think he decided to resign because he felt that if he went on, he would not be able to fulfil his responsibilities," Mr Yosano said, but he did not specify what the health issue was.

Mr Abe will stay on in a caretaker role until a successor is chosen from his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in a party election that media said would probably be on September 19.

LDP Secretary-General Taro Aso, a close Mr Abe ally who shares most of his hawkish views on security policy, is seen as frontrunner to become the new Prime Minister.

Other names floated include former finance minister Sadakazu Tanigaki and former chief Cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

The LDP and its junior partner have a huge majority in Parliament's lower house, which picks the Prime Minister.

Mr Abe had indicated that he would step down if he failed to extend a Japanese naval mission supporting US-led operations in Afghanistan, but the timing of his move was unexpected.

"It is the worst possible timing," LDP lawmaker Gen Nakatani told Fuji Television.

"Parliament has started and it's now lost its leading act. There will be confusion, loss and trouble."

Some local LDP chapters, worried that the party could not win the next general election with Mr Abe in charge, had pushed him to step down. No election need be held until 2009, but a Parliamentary deadlock could spark one sooner, pundits say.

Opposition parties, which won control of Parliament's upper house in the July poll and can delay Bills, including legislation to continue the navy's Afghan support mission in the Indian Ocean, had planned to grill Mr Abe in Parliament yesterday.

Both the LDP's coalition partner and Mr Aso questioned the timing and said it was important to avoid a political vacuum.

Financial market players were also caught off guard.

"The timing is astonishing. It's a huge surprise. He said he would risk his job in passing the anti-terrorism law, so I don't know why he is resigning before making the effort," said Koichi Haji, chief economist at NLI Research Institute.

Factbox

• Born in 1954 and a third-generation politician, 52-year-old Mr Abe was Japan's first Prime Minister born after World War II. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was a wartime Cabinet minister who was imprisoned, but never tried, as a war criminal after World War II. He served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960 and had a strong influence on the young Mr Abe.

• Conservative Mr Abe made revising the US-drafted post-war pacifist Constitution and boosting Japan's security profile key planks of his agenda. He has managed to pass controversial laws - one to upgrade the defence agency to a full-fledged ministry, and another on educational reform - during his term.

• He suffered a drubbing in an upper house election in July, losing control of the upper house of Parliament after a series of scandals and gaffes among Cabinet ministers cast doubt on his leadership. Voters were also angered by a scandal over lost payments into the public pension system.

• Mr Abe's wife, Akie, became a media darling after her husband took office, with tabloids full of tidbits about her clothing and love of South Korean TV. Akie used her popularity to help shore up her husband's falling domestic support and soften his image overseas.

• Known for his stylish clothes and soft-spoken ways, Mr Abe is fond of archery, which he has demonstrated on television. Coming to power directly after the charismatic, Elvis-loving Junichiro Koizumi, the slightly-wooden Mr Abe has, however, faced an uphill battle in terms of his public image. (Reuters)

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