In Japan, Scandal Boosts Prime Minister Aso's Bid to Stay in Power

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TOKYO, May 11 -- In this election year in Japan, history-making political change had seemed a sure thing.

The economy was in a deep sinkhole and the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party was in disarray. In late winter, party elders demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose approval numbers sank into the single digits.

But scandal has smiled this spring on Aso and his ruling party.

The top aide to the leader of the main opposition party was indicted in March on allegations of illegal fundraising. The once-surging poll numbers of the Democratic Party of Japan plummeted. And the veteran leader of the opposition, Ichiro Ozawa, resigned Monday to try to save his party from losing an election that must be held by September.

"I have decided to sacrifice myself and resign as party leader to strengthen our party unity for a clear victory in the next election," Ozawa said at a news conference.

"To me, whether I become prime minister is not an issue at all," he added. "We just simply must change this long rotten government."

Ozawa, 66, has been a fixture in Japanese politics for 40 years. He quit on a day when a national newspaper poll showed that 70 percent of voters polled do not approve of him. The survey also showed that voters much preferred Aso to Ozawa, a sharp reversal of public sentiment in recent months.

The resignation will allow the opposition to chose a younger, less-blemished politician to be the face of a party whose policies emphasize consumer rights and transparency in political fundraising. The opposition has also been far more willing than the ruling party to challenge the foreign policy of the United States, which is Japan's strongest ally and maintains a large military presence here.

By selling change and clean government, Ozawa's party had in the past two years outmaneuvered the Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics for a half-century. The opposition grabbed control of the upper house of parliament in an election in 2007 and has since been able to embarrass the ruling party and derail many of its policies.

The Liberal Democrats have been plagued over the years by scandals involving political contributions, especially from large construction companies milking huge government contracts. The Democratic Party had insisted it was different. It pledged not to take money from construction firms and to break the cozy relationship between government bureaucrats and the companies they funded.

So when Ozawa's top aide was indicted for allegedly taking money over several years from a large construction company, the political damage was swift and severe. Within days, Ozawa's approval ratings sank beneath those of Aso.

In the past two months, political analysts have said Ozawa would have to quit for his party to have a chance in the elections.

Although Aso has clearly benefited from Ozawa's troubles, the prime minister remains deeply unpopular. Since taking office in September, his poll numbers have ranked him as one of the most disliked leaders in postwar Japan.

His popularity has risen from single digits. But the poll in Monday's Yomiuri newspaper showed that his approval rating is still below 30 percent and that 60 percent of those surveyed disapprove of his leadership.

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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