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*Japan opposition leader Ozawa suffers from dual images
*Ozawa's woes cast doubt over party win at polls
*Analysts say too soon to declare opposition defeat
By Linda Sieg
TOKYO, March 5 Japanese opposition leader
Ichiro Ozawa has long been something of a paradox.
Now his fight to keep his job despite a scandal that has
ensnared a close aide has put his dual images as a bold
advocate of reform and an old-style fixer under a harsh
Ozawa, 66, on Wednesday denied any wrongdoing and said he
would not resign over the arrest of the aide on suspicion of
taking illegal corporate donations, and accused prosecutors of
abusing their authority ahead of an election his Democratic
Party looked likely to win.
The affair has cast doubt over whether the Democrats can
score a decisive victory over unpopular Prime Minister Taro
Aso's ruling party, a win that could break Japan's prolonged
political deadlock as the country struggles with a worsening
recession. Analysts say Ozawa might yet have to step down.
More than 15 years after bolting the ruling Liberal
Democratic Party, Ozawa has been betting this year's election
is his best shot at ousting the conservative party whose more
than 50 years of dominance he says has bred corruption and
A protege of Kakuei Tanaka, a former prime minister who
built Japan's postwar political regime of pork-barrel spending,
party factions and vested interests, Ozawa has nonetheless been
a consistent advocate of change.
"Everyone knew about his contradictory personality, being a
powerful reformer of Japan's political system but also coming
from the heart of it ... and a master of old-style
deal-making," said Sophia University political scientist Koichi
"It seems his past is finally his undoing," he added.
"He may come out clean, but the political damage is done."
TV shows reporting on the scandal have dug out footage of
Ozawa with his long-deceased mentors -- Tanaka, who was
arrested in 1976 and later convicted of taking bribes from
Lockheed Aircraft, and Shin Kanemaru, an LDP baron who resigned
from parliament in 1992 after admitting to taking bribes.
NOT OVER YET
Still, some analysts said it was too soon to assume Ozawa
would have to resign or risk leading the Democrats to defeat.
"I don't think you can draw that conclusion yet," said
Gerry Curtis, an expert in Japanese politics at Columbia
"I still find it hard to believe that a scandal, after
years in which scandals have been so common, will make people
say they will stick with a party and a prime minister they
Aso, Japan's third premier in less than two years, is
struggling with voter support rates of around 10 percent and
surveys had suggested the LDP was heading for defeat at the
hands of voters fed up with what they see as incompetence and
"It (the scandal) helps the LDP, but I don't think it will
fundamentally change the outcome," Curtis said.
Once an LDP rising star, Ozawa left the party in 1993 and
helped briefly oust it. That same year he outlined his policies
in a book, "A Blueprint for a New Japan", calling for a bolder
security role and reforms to reduce bureaucratic control.
In recent years, Ozawa has sounded a more populist note
amid a backlash against pro-market reforms, pledging to shrink
income gaps and "put the people's livelihoods first".
Ozawa also helped engineer the introduction of
single-member districts for parliament's lower house, an
electoral reform experts agree was vital for the rise of a true
A skilled player of the Japanese chess-like game of Go, he
has spent the past decade and a half strategising to create a
viable rival to the LDP. His small Liberal Party merged with
the Democrats in 2003 and three years later, he took the helm.
Speculation has simmered as to whether Ozawa, who suffered
a heart attack in 1991, is physically up to the rigours of
being premier, although he and his aides have brushed off such
Ozawa has also been dogged by a reputation as an autocratic
loner who destroys the parties he creates.
He jolted the political scene in late 2007 by discussing a
"grand coalition" with then-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda to
break the policy deadlock, a proposal roundly rejected by his
But his skills at campaign strategy and ability to hold the
sometimes fractious Democrats together prompted party members
then to beg him to remain in the top party post.
Some analysts suggested the Democrats might yet fare well
at the polls, if Ozawa is replaced with a more appealing leader
who lacks the same sort of historical baggage.
"If he does it (quits) quickly, they can recover to an
extent ... if the electorate is presented with what looks like
solid leadership and the turning of a new page," Sophia's
(Editing by Valerie Lee)