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DPJ’s Ozawa stepping down as party leader

Date Posted: 2009-05-14

Embroiled in a scandal involving his secretary and political funds, the Democratic Party of Japan’s president has announced his resignation.

Ichiro Ozawa says he’ll leave the post as soon as the Lower House finishes discussions on a supplemental 2009 budget and after his DPJ selects a successor. Ozawa’s been under fire since March, when his secretary, Takanori Okubo, was charged with violating Japan’s Political Funds Control Law. The 47-year-old Okubo was the chief accountant for Ozawa’s political fund management unit. He’s accused of accepting illegal donations from the scandal-marred Nishimatsu Construction Company.

Ozawa, who himself took office three years ago in the wake of a scandal involving his predecessor, Seiji Maehara. Maehara resigned, with Ozawa elected president in April 2006, then reelected twice more since. Ozawa has declared his innocence, but says he’s resigning in order to give the DPJ a chance to consolidate and unify in order to pull power from the Liberal Democratic Party in upcoming elections.

Okinawa’s governor was stunned by the announcement. “I’m so surprised, because I thought he would stay as party president until the general election,” said Hirokazu Nakaima. “I can’t imagine how his resignation will affect discussions in the Diet, or for bills now under consideration by the Diet.” Ozawa had aligned himself with Okinawa Prefecture officials in opposition to the transfer of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to northern Okinawa’s Camp Schwab.

Ozawa’s resignation announcement was a surprise to most political observers and politicians, even though most in his Democratic party of Japan had been pressing for such a resignation. While some insisted “the DPJ is the party of people everywhere, and without Ichiro Ozawa it will not be unified,” most were concerned his falling star could give Prime Minister Taro Aso a further ratings boost and help the LDP keep control. Senior DPJ adviser Kozo Watanabe said “from the viewpoint of the DPJ’s goals, I think Ozawa truly made a smart and fine decision.”

The Prime Minister’s political stock seemed, only months ago, to be crashing amidst poor public poll ratings. That’s been changing in recent months as Aso deftly manages Japan’s flagging economy. From March, when polls showed most people were no longer supporting Ozawa’s plan to stay in office, Aso has been growing in power. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken last weekend found 71% of respondents unsatisfied by Ozawa’s decision to continue as party president. Perhaps more importantly, the poll found 40% saying Aso would be the best prime minister, while only 25% indicated Ozawa would do the job.

Two names are being bantered as replacements for Ozawa, both of them past DPJ presidents. Katsuya Okada and Naoto Kan are considered the frontrunners, although political analysts aren’t sure whether either could give a winning boost to the DPJ over Prime Minister Aso, or whether they’d hurt the LDP. They say either candidate will help get the DPJ on track again, and coalition partners from the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto, the People’s New Party, are suggesting they’ll stand by whoever’s elected.

Okada is viewed by many as the more experienced of the two, having a clean image that could help unify the party. At the same time, though, some politicians fear Okada’s personal style could be more abrasive. The president of Surugadai University in Saitama, Norihiko Narita, says ”Ozawa was realistic, but Okada has a tendency to stick to his opinions. The DPJ must choose fairly quickly, because Prime Minister Aso must call elections before the end of September, when the Lower House term expires.

The DPJ’s Secretary General,Yukio Hatoyama, has announced that he will also step down from his post.

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