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Japan opposition leader seeks to ride out scandal

Japan opposition leader seeks to ride out scandal

Opposition Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa looked set yesterday to try to ride out a fundraising scandal that has clouded his party's prospects for an election investors had hoped could break Japan's policy deadlock.
Media surveys already show that a majority of voters think he should quit after his aide was arrested last week on suspicion of accepting illegal corporate donations.
Yesterday, however, Ozawa denied any involvement in corrupt practices and said he was not considering quitting for now.
"When circumstances including the (results of) the investigation become clear, at that point I would like the people to decide," Ozawa told a news conference. "Therefore, I am not thinking about resigning until a final conclusion is reached."
Before the scandal broke, a political stalemate and voters' frustrations with Prime Minister Taro Aso had raised the chances Ozawa would lead his party to victory in the election.
That would end more than 50 years of nearly unbroken rule by Aso's Liberal Democratic Party and usher in a government keen to reduce bureaucratic control of policy and to adopt a foreign policy less reliant on the United States.
The scandal has cut into support for the Democrats but has done little to buoy Aso and the LDP. That could mean an indecisive outcome in the election, which must be held by October, spelling further policy gridlock.
Ozawa said he would be guided by public opinion in making his final decision. "Whether I can get support from the people in the election to achieve my major goal of political reform is always part of my basis for judging (whether to resign)," he said.
Analysts have said the Democratic Party could still win the election if Ozawa stepped down quickly and was replaced by a new leader with a credible and clean image. But some said Ozawa, a former ruling party heavyweight who bolted the party, helped briefly oust it in 1993, and has been trying to do so again ever since, would do his best to stay on.
"He's been working for a change in administration for 16 years, and it would be painful for him to quit just when that goal is in sight," said political commentator Hirotaka Futatsuki.
"No one wants to climb down the mountain just when the peak is in sight," Futatsuki said, adding public opinion would be key.
The scandal has done little to bolster the unpopular Aso and the LDP after Trade Minister Toshihiro Nikai and other ruling party lawmakers also said they had received donations from the construction firm at the heart of the affair. Nikai, 70, has said his party faction would return funds received from the company, but repeated yesterday that he believed there had been no wrongdoing.
"After consulting with those involved and experts, I believe that (the donations) were handled appropriately based on the political funding law," Nikai told a news conference.
A Yomiuri newspaper survey published on Monday showed that about 53 percent of voters wanted Ozawa to resign while more than 80 percent were not convinced by his explanations of the affair.