Pressure appeared to be rising for ruling party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa to quit ahead of an election, after a poll showed a majority of voters think he should go if a former aide is charged in a funding scandal.

 

Ozawa’s electioneering skills have been thought vital to the Democratic Party’s chances of winning the upper house poll expected in July, but he has come under fire after three current and former aides were arrested last month on suspicion of misreporting political donations.

Pressure appeared to be rising for ruling party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa to quit ahead of an election, after a poll showed a majority of voters think he should go if a former aide is charged in a funding scandal.

 

Ozawa’s electioneering skills have been thought vital to the Democratic Party’s chances of winning the upper house poll expected in July, but he has come under fire after three current and former aides were arrested last month on suspicion of misreporting political donations.

 

Ozawa, who was questioned by prosecutors for a second time this Sunday, hinted he could step down if he himself is charged, but denied he was involved in illegal activity.

 

“I have never taken any illegal contributions, bribes or improper funds so I don’t expect to be held criminally responsible,” Ozawa told a news conference.”But if I am, then I would bear heavy responsibility.”

 

In a poll by the Mainichi newspaper, 76 percent of respondents said they thought he should resign if one of the former aides, a member of parliament, was indicted. Media reports said the aide could be charged as soon as Thursday.

 

Voter support for Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s four-month-old government stood at 50 percent, down five points, but slightly higher than in several other recent polls.

The Democrats must avoid policy deadlock as they struggle to balance economic stimulus and a fight against deflation with rising public debt and the needs of a rapidly ageing population.

 

Though he won a landslide in last year’s general election for the more powerful lower house, Hatoyama needs to win a majority in the upper house to enable his government to pass laws smoothly without relying on a coalition with two small parties that differ with the Democrats on security and economic policy.

 

Ozawa has repeatedly said he will stay in the key post of Democratic Party secretary-general, denying any intentional wrongdoing after he was questioned by prosecutors.

 

But increasingly negative public opinion could make him more of a liability than an asset for the Democrats and Hatoyama, who has previously said he would stand by Ozawa.

 

“It is a matter of course to show we can keep our house in order, but while the prosecutors are investigating, all we can do is watch the situation calmly,” Hatoyama was quoted by Kyodo news agency as saying when asked about similar comments by Transport Minister Seiji Maehara over the weekend.

Hatoyama faced a grilling over Ozawa and about his own financial scandal in parliament, but the Mainichi poll showed that 60 percent of respondents thought there was no need for Hatoyama himself to step down.

 

“What is important is not creating an image, but doing our best for the people,” he said in response to opposition questions.

 

Analysts said the Democrats would probably fare better with Ozawa out of the spotlight, though he would likely continue to operate behind the scenes.

 “With criticism on the rise, the public is going to find it hard to understand if he stays on for the sake of the election,” said Katsuhiko Nakamura, director of research at think tank Asian Forum Japan.

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