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Ichiro Ozawa’s efforts to persuade voters to end the Liberal Democratic Party’s almost-uninterrupted 50 years of rule and bring his party to power may be set back by reminders of his links to disgraced former LDP lawmakers.

Last week’s arrest of his chief secretary, Takanori Okubo, for alleged violation of the political funds law probably will hurt the Democratic Party of Japan in the general election that must be held by fall and weaken Ozawa’s leadership, DPJ lawmakers say.

“Should the allegations prove true, then Mr. Ozawa will have to decide what his responsibility is,” said Motohisa Furukawa, a member of the Lower House and a former Bank of Japan official. “It’s a fact that this case has meant major damage to our party.”

For now, the DPJ is supporting its leader. Still, the incident revives memories of Ozawa’s 40-year political career, including his time in the LDP as protege to the late kingpins Kakuei Tanaka and Shin Kanemaru, both of whom were charged with corruption.

“This type of money scandal is a chronic disease of Japanese politics,” said Jin Igarashi, a political science professor at Hosei University in Tokyo. “Ozawa is carrying on Kanemaru’s legacy.”

The inquiry comes as polls show the DPJ is set to unseat the LDP, which has governed Japan for all but 10 months since 1955. Ozawa left the ruling party in 1993 after Kanemaru’s arrest and helped oust it the same year. He later created and disbanded three parties before joining the DPJ, which led the opposition camp in taking control of the less-powerful Upper House in a July 2007 poll.

Kanemaru, whom Ozawa called a “mentor and benefactor,” resigned in 1992 from the Diet after investigators found hundreds of pounds of gold bars in his home. Tanaka, who died in 1993, stepped down as prime minister amid allegations of land fraud and was convicted in 1983 for taking bribes from Lockheed Corp.

Ozawa, 66, said at a March 4 news conference he has done nothing wrong and will not resign. He accused prosecutors of political motivations in charging Okubo with falsely reporting that ¥21 million in donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co. had come from political organizations.

“We have to trust what Mr. Ozawa said, but it will be difficult for him to stay if what he said is contradicted,” DPJ Lower House lawmaker Akihisa Nagashima said. “One cannot rule out the possibility some DPJ members may try to take him down, though I don’t see such signs now.”

Tokyo prosecutors are considering whether to question Ozawa in relation to the case. Ozawa told reporters he is willing “to meet and explain things to anyone.”

Polls show that public support for Ozawa and his party comes less from enthusiasm for DPJ policies and more from antipathy to Prime Minister Taro Aso and the LDP’s inability to quickly pass a package to stem the descent into recession.

A Sankei FNN poll Feb. 24 showed Ozawa was favored over Aso as the best choice for prime minister, 13.4 percent to 3.4 percent. More than 26 percent of respondents said no one is qualified to lead the country. The rest of the choices were divided among 11 other lawmakers. No margin of error was given.

Polls taken last weekend show support for Ozawa is plummeting. A Kyodo News survey said 61 percent of voters think he should quit as DPJ head. A poll by the Asahi Shimbun put the number at 57 percent, while a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun turned up 53 percent. Aso’s popularity rose 2.6 percentage points to 16 percent, the first gain since October, Kyodo said.

The case is touching members of the ruling party as well. Prosecutors are looking into one of trade minister Toshihiro Nikai’s fundraising groups for allegedly having Nishimatsu buy ¥8.38 million worth of tickets to parties, the Sankei Shimbun reported Friday. Nikai said he has done nothing wrong and would return all the money received from the company.

“The worst pattern is when the public feels the LDP is terrible and that the DPJ is the same,” Tokyo-based independent political analyst Atsuo Ito said. “But I don’t think this case will raise Aso’s approval ratings. Voters aren’t that stupid.”

Still, the fallout may narrow the odds on the election, which before news of the arrest broke the opposition was pushing Aso, 68, to call as soon as possible. Should Aso do so, voters are likely to view it as a ploy to capitalize on Ozawa’s troubles, DPJ member Furukawa said. The election must be called by September.

“Ozawa’s investigation creates confusion not just within the DPJ, but on a larger national scale,” said Norihiko Narita, president of Surugadai University in Hanno, Saitama Prefecture, and former chief secretary to ex-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. “How this ultimately plays out in the election will depend on what the prosecution is looking for and the public perception.”

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