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CHIBA (Kyodo) Kensaku Morita, an independent backed by half the Liberal Democratic Party members of the Chiba Prefectural Assembly, was headed Sunday night to victory in a pivotal election with national implications.

It was a bitter blow for the Democratic Party of Japan, which had hoped to use the Chiba gubernatorial race as a springboard toward victory in the next national election but ended up hamstrung by a money scandal that threatens to topple the party’s leader, Ichiro Ozawa.

The 59-year-old Morita, an actor and former House of Representatives member from the LDP, was projected as the winner fairly early in the evening. Among his four independent opponents was Taira Yoshida, supported by the DPJ.

“I would like to build a ‘cool’ Chiba Prefecture that can make demands toward the central government,” Morita told his supporters after declaring victory.

The final outcome, including the exact vote count and other data, was to be announced later by the prefectural election board.

The loss by the 49-year-old Yoshida could influence DPJ members’ opinions on whether Ozawa should resign over the fundraising scandal involving his top aide. Discontent toward Ozawa has been simmering in the party’s ranks since last week.

Ozawa said Tuesday he was staying on as president despite the indictment earlier that day of Takanori Okubo for alleged fundraising irregularities involving Nishimatsu Construction Co.

The Chiba election was the first major race since Okubo’s indictment, and its outcome could affect the fate of Ozawa, who indicated he would observe public opinion closely in determining what action to take.

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said during a Sunday TV talk show that Ozawa will assess the situation immediately before the next Lower House election and decide then whether he should step down.

Hatoyama said that he suggested to Ozawa both of them should resign if the public still has a “stern” attitude toward the party immediately before the election, which must be held no later than September, and that Ozawa agreed to the proposal.

“I’m serving as secretary general under Mr. Ozawa. When he dies, I die, too,” Hatoyama said, indicating he would step down as well if Ozawa quits.

Before the scandal broke, the DPJ was riding high and appeared to be a good bet to wrest power from the LDP, which has ruled Japan almost without a break since 1955.

The Chiba election may also provide a window on voting trends in the next national election regarding densely populated districts in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Morita lost to outgoing Gov. Akiko Domoto, 76, in the previous gubernatorial election in 2005.

Domoto, who did not seek a third term, had expressed hope that Yoshida would succeed her.

Aside from the DPJ, Yoshida was also supported by small opposition parties, including the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).

The three other candidates were Masumi Shiraishi, 51, Fusayuki Hatta, 64, and Kenichi Nishio, 58. Hatta was backed by the Japanese Communist Party.

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