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Ozawa to resign over Japanese funds row

JAPAN'S top opposition leader said yesterday he will resign to keep a political funding scandal from pulling down his party in upcoming parliamentary elections.

Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, said he had decided to resign because he does not want the scandal involving one of his aides to cloud elections to be held by September 10.

"I deeply apologize," he said. "I must do this for myself, for the people and for my party."

The announcement was a major embarrassment for the Democrats, who had surged ahead of Prime Minister Taro Aso's ruling party in recent surveys and had been tipped by some analysts as being in a good position to win, and possibly take over power, if elections are called soon.

Aso, whose party has governed Japan for virtually all of the past 50 years, has the authority to call elections whenever he sees fit, but must call them by September 10.

While the Democrats are still strong, the scandal, which broke in March, has sapped much of their momentum.

Ozawa initially said the fracas was groundless and vowed to stay in office until the ruling party was defeated. But yesterday's announcement was seen as reflecting pressure from other party executives for him to step out of the way.

"I believe it is imperative that we win the elections," Ozawa said. "I do not want to impede that in any way."

Tokyo prosecutors allege Ozawa's political funding organization received 21 million yen (US$216,000) in illegal donations between 2003 and 2006. One of Ozawa's senior aides and two company executives have been arrested for political funding law violations.

Ozawa, who has been at the Democrats' helm since 2006, has not been personally implicated in any wrongdoing.

Yesterday, he again denied any violations were committed.

The Democrats, Japan's largest opposition party, have skillfully capitalized on growing discontent with Aso and his ruling party, which is seen by many as fragmented and lacking in leadership. Aso's public support ratings had dropped to below 20 percent in recent surveys, but have been on the rise as anger over the scandal deepened.

In a poll released by the Yomiuri, Japan's largest daily, 71 percent of Japanese voters said it was "unacceptable" that Ozawa continued to serve as chief of the party. That was the highest level of disapproval since the scandal broke, Yomiuri said.

Before reports of Ozawa's decision surfaced, Democratic Party executive Yukio Hatoyama acknowledged the seriousness of the situation and said further explanation was needed.


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