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Cleared of misappropriation allegations, Makiko Tanaka, one of the nation’s most popular politicians, is on the verge of a comeback.

And the likely move, leaked Thursday by her aides, appears to be striking quiet fear into the Liberal Democratic Party.

The daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, Makiko, as she is popularly known, has gained a following with her sharp tongue and combative style.

She was a key supporter of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when he was running for the LDP’s presidency 2 1/2 years ago. When he fired her as Foreign Minister less than a year later, his popularity plunged.

Tanaka is expected to seek her former House of Representatives seat in Niigata’s No. 5 electoral district, which was once her father’s political fiefdom.

Kakuei Tanaka propelled the economy and became a towering figure in the 1970s by pouring money into public works projects.

With Tanaka and the LDP still at odds, there is speculation that the resurgent Democratic Party of Japan, which has boosted its Diet strength by absorbing the Liberal Party, may take Tanaka under its wings.

The fallout between Tanaka and Koizumi began in January 2002 when she was sacked as foreign minister; she had fought a noisy and highly politicized battle with Foreign Ministry bureaucracy, which was awash in corruption scandals.

Tanaka, 59, resigned her Diet seat in August last year amid the allegations, first reported in a magazine, that she misused the salaries of her two state-paid secretaries.

By that time, she had already been deserted by the LDP, which suspended her party membership for a two-year period. That occurred in June 2002 and there has been no love lost between them ever since.

While the LDP publicly appears unperturbed by a possible Tanaka comeback — made possible by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office clearing Tanaka on Tuesday — one senior party official echoed what appears to be widespread concern.

“I believe (Tanaka) may run in the upcoming Lower House election as an independent with backing from the DPJ,” the official said. The election is expected to be held in November.

After Tanaka resigned her Diet membership, the Lower House seat for Niigata’s No. 5 district went to Yukio Hoshino, an LDP member, in a by-election.

For the upcoming general election, Katsuhiko Shirakawa, a former home affairs minister, has expressed his intention to vie for the seat and has asked the DPJ and the Social Democratic Party for support.

Fueling speculation of a Tanaka comeback, a DPJ executive said she recently talked two or three times on the phone with Ichiro Ozawa, the former Liberal Party leader who had been a Kakuei Tanaka disciple. The phone calls have prompted speculation that Tanaka is willing to work with the DPJ, which hopes to eventually unseat the LDP from power.

Those close to Ozawa say the idea of supporting Tanaka is borne out of gossip. Anyway, they say, wresting power from the LDP would require more than a “stunt.”

Others, however, say the DPJ, which fares rather poorly with female voters, may benefit from Tanaka’s affiliation.

Sources said Tanaka’s aides have been making the rounds in Niigata since last month.

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