Shinzo Abe meant stability, Johnson chaos - GulfToday

Shinzo Abe meant stability, Johnson chaos

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Shinzo Abe raises his arms with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party candidate Keiichiro Asao after he delivered a campaign speech for the Upper House election in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo. Agence France-Presse

Britain greeted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resignation as chairman of the Conservative Party, the first stage in his removal from the prime ministry with relief and “Bye, bye Boris,” while Japan wept over the assassination of conservative Liberal Democrat Party stalwart and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Johnson served from 2019 until, due to an escalating series of missteps and scandals, he was forced to resign as party chief last Thursday. But he has planned for a “long goodbye” for he intends to remain as caretaker prime minister until his deeply fractured party agrees on a successor.

Abe was Japan’s longest serving prime minister. His first term, from September 2006 to September 2007, was cut short by ill health while his second term lasted from December 2012 until December 2020. He was a member of Japan’s House of Representatives from October 1996 until he was shot on July 8th. His successor is Liberal Democrat Fumio Kishida who served as Abe’s foreign minister as well as the party’s research arm before taking took office in 2012. The transition was smooth.

Johnson’s reign has been chaotic while Abe brought stability at a time Japan suffered from revolving door politics at the highest level.

Before he became prime minister Johnson’s chief achievement was securing the vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) in the 2016 referendum. He became prime minister in July 2019 after the resignation of Theresa May and won for his party an overwhelming victory in the subsequent election. While he takes credit for managing Brexit, the Brexiteers’ promises of a return to sovereignty, control of borders, and economic independence were not realised. Britain has faced economic slowdown, has not concluded free trade deals with the US and other countries which make up for losses sustained by Brexit, and has complicated the lives of Britons living in EU countries.

Furthermore, in the weeks before he resigned, his government demanded changes in the final deal reached during lengthy and intensive negotiations with the EU. Such changes put at risk arrangements made for trade between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic and could undermine the 1988 Good Friday Agreement which has secured peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

The advent of COVID in early 2020 led to his downfall. He responded to the crisis with mixed messaging instead of instructing the public to heed the advice of health experts who recommended distancing, washing hands, masking, and self-isolating. He imposed lockdown too late and lifted lockdown too early.

He shifted from trying to contain COVID to promoting “herd immunity” which drove up numbers of infection, hospitalisation, and deaths. His government did not act to provide health care workers with protective gowns and equipment. While field hospitals were established to handle overflow from hospitals, staff was in short supply. Care homes were heavily infected.

While Britons were suffering strict lockdown, Johnson, his ministers and staff were partying at the prime minister’s residence and office. Johnson denied socialising while family members of the public were not permitted to meet or visit dying relatives in hospital. The “Partygate” scandal exposed Johnson’s penchant for avoiding the truth on issues other than partying during COVID. He repeatedly lied to parliament by claiming he and his entourage did not violate lockdown although there was evidence that they did. The police imposed fines. Misleading parliament is a serious matter and should lead to resignation.

On foreign affairs, Johnson promoted Nato involvement in Russia’s war on Ukraine although the conflict could have been avoided if Kyiv agreed to drop its demand to join the alliance, an action Russian President Vladmiri Putin regarded as a threat to Russia’s security. The war is now in its fifth month and is creating energy and grain shortages across the world and driving inflation which is depriving the poor everywhere of food.

The party’s determination to stick by him ended when he appointed to a senior post a member of parliament accused of being a sexual predator.

Consequently, Johnson did not resign because of policies but because he showed himself to be lacking in character. This humiliated the Conservative Party, which had tolerated this major fault for too long but made it impossible for him to carry on.

A staunch nationalist as well as a conservative, Abe sought to initiate reforms. His government reinterpreted Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution by permitting the deployment of Japanese troops in overseas missions. He improved relations with China and placed Japan squarely in the Western camp by cultivating relations with the US and Nato allies. He revitalised Japan’s stagnant economy although not as much as he planned but provided the means for the country to deal with the COVID shock. He was credited with promoting the 2020 the Tokyo Olympics which were postponed for a year due to the pandemic. Abe resigned following a resurgence of a stomach ailment which forced him to step down during his first, year-long term as premier. He was a man of character who made his party and country proud. This is why his death has been widely mourned.

While Japan’s ruling party resolved the succession speedily, the British replacement process could involve bitter, long-drawn-out internal warfare which could compound the damage on the Conservative Party inflicted by Johnson.

This contest is the most interesting development in 21st century British politics due to the number of potential Conservative candidates from Asian backgrounds. These are ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance secretary) Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel who are of Indian origin, ex-Health Secretary Sajid Javid whose forebearers hail from Pakistan, and newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who is an Iraqi Kurdish immigrant.

According to a poll conducted by the Observer, Sunak is tipped by 55.4 per cent of Conservative voters and Javid is second with 50.5 per cent. By leading the ministerial desertion of Johnson, Sunak precipitated his downfall. It will be ironic if either Sub-Continental is chosen for the top job by 200,000 largely white anti-immigration Conservative voters. The contest could be resolved over the next two weeks when senior Conservatives reduce candidates to two in votes by members of parliament. This will be followed by two weeks of cam- paigning by the survivors and a vote by party members in early September. If this does not go as planned, the party conference in early October could be charged with deciding Johnson’s successor.

Whatever happens, a vengeful Johnson will remain in charge for now although he has lost the confi- dence of both his party and a 59 per cent of the British public. While he has promised to take no new political initiatives during the interim period, Covid cases are rising, the economy needs at- tention and the EU awaits talks to resolve urgent problems over Northern Ireland.

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