Bowing to pressure from within the Democratic Party of Japan, Ichiro Ozawa surprised the political world Monday by announcing his resignation as DPJ president to take responsibility for the political fundraising scandal involving his chief aide.

Ozawa’s resignation, although not effective immediately, comes at a critical time as both the ruling and opposition camps gird for a general election that must be held before Lower House members’ terms end in September.

The two names being floated as his possible successor — Katsuya Okada and Naoto Kan — are both past DPJ presidents.

“I will take time thinking (about running for the party presidency),” Okada said later. “What matters is who can achieve the regime change as the party leader.”

DPJ Secretary General Yukio Hatoyama said he too will step down from his post.

Ozawa told a news conference he made the decision to maintain solidarity within the DPJ so the party can win the next election and wrest power from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

“We definitely need to secure victory (in the election). . . . Forming solidarity is indispensable for that purpose,” he said. “If I’m posing any problem for that goal, that’s not what I want to do.

“A change of power and the establishment of democracy in Japan have been my political priorities.”

Ozawa said he plans to stay on until Lower House deliberations on the extra fiscal 2009 budget are done and an election to choose his successor as DPJ president is held. He said he will not leave the party or resign as a lawmaker.

Ozawa’s secretary, Takanori Okubo, 47, was charged in March with violating the Political Funds Control Law.

Rikuzankai, Ozawa’s political fund management body, for which Okubo was the chief accountant, allegedly accepted illicit donations from scandal-tainted Nishimatsu Construction Co.

The law prohibits corporate contributions to individual lawmakers.

Since Okubo’s arrest, Ozawa had been stressing his innocence. Despite strong calls from within the DPJ to quit, the leader of the largest opposition force refused and said he would make the final decision depending on whether his exit would help the party’s prospects for the next election.

Ozawa’s announcement drew a positive reaction from DPJ heavyweights.

“From the viewpoint of the DPJ’s goal (to take power), I think Ozawa truly made a smart and fine decision,” senior DPJ adviser Kozo Watanabe said.

Before Okubo’s arrest, the DPJ was enjoying a favorable wind. The Cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso was suffering critically low support rates since he took office in September due in part to Aso’s policy flip-flops and verbal gaffes, prompting critics to predict the DPJ could oust the LDP-New Komeito ruling bloc in the next election.

In March, however, the situation reversed. Opinion polls taken by various media companies showed a majority of the public did not support Ozawa’s decision to stay on.

According to a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun conducted between Friday and Sunday, 71 percent said they were dissatisfied with Ozawa continuing on as DPJ president.

The survey also found that 40 percent of the respondents favored Aso as prime minister, compared with 25 percent finding Ozawa more suitable.

In April 2006, Ozawa stepped in as DPJ president after Seiji Maehara resigned over a scandal. Ozawa is serving his third term as party president after having been re-elected last September.

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