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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Ozawa denies wrongdoing, vows to stay on
Despite rising public pressure to resign as president of the Democratic Party of Japan over the scandal involving alleged illicit donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co., Ichiro Ozawa said Tuesday he will stay at his post and denied any wrongdoing on his part.
On what he might do in the future, Ozawa said any decision will be based on whether the DPJ can win the general election that must be held by autumn.
"We need to win the Lower House election to overturn the government," Ozawa said during a regular news conference at DPJ headquarters. "My future action will be based on that."
Ozawa said that although media reports are alleging the donations from Nishimatsu may have constituted bribes, investigative authorities have failed to come up with concrete evidence to prove such allegations in the wake of last week's arrest of his chief secretary, Takanori Okubo.
"In that sense, when other things become more concrete, I would like to listen to the people's opinions," he added. "I am not thinking of resigning at this point."
Before the scandal broke, Ozawa was considered the leading candidate to be the next prime minister.
He said he is waiting for details from prosecutors to clarify what happened before he decides his next course.
A Kyodo News survey last weekend found 61.1 percent of respondents want Ozawa to quit the DPJ helm, while 28.9 percent said he should stay on.
Okubo, who served as chief accountant of Ozawa's political body, Rikuzankai, which allegedly received the donations from scandal-tainted Nishimatsu Construction, was arrested March 3 on suspicion of violating the Political Funds Control Law.
Nishimatsu has reportedly provided Ozawa's office with about ¥25 million in donations a year since around 1995, for a total of about ¥300 million over more than 10 years.
Two former Nishimatsu officials were also arrested and have reportedly told investigators the contractor made the donations to Ozawa in an attempt to win contracts for public works projects in the Tohoku region, Ozawa's political base.
Ozawa claimed Tuesday he does not know about such contract arrangements.
He also said he relies on his secretaries for political funding reports, so he does not know about individual cases.
Earlier in the day, the DPJ held an executive meeting where Ozawa reiterated his intention to stay at his post.
According to DPJ lawmaker Toshimi Kitazawa, who attended the meeting, those present agreed to continue backing him in the runup to the general election.
However, Fukashi Horie, a professor emeritus in politics at Keio University, said Ozawa's fate hangs on the outcome of the investigation and he may not be able to remain head of the main opposition force.
If Ozawa were to be questioned by prosecutors, it might make the public think he did something wrong, fueling further discontent toward the DPJ, Horie said.
"Although the DPJ members say they support Ozawa at present, cracks will form within the party" if that happens, he said.
Ozawa said during his new conference he has not been contacted by prosecutors.
Horie said that if Ozawa were to step down, it would be important for the DPJ to engage in damage control and prevent supporters, especially in rural areas, from distancing themselves from the party.
He said Ozawa has been reinforcing rural support groups, but if he steps down under a cloud, the DPJ may lose those backers, causing "serious damage."
'Aides not queried'
Trade minister Toshihiro Nikai said Tuesday that prosecutors have not questioned any of his aides or associates in connection with a widening political donation scandal.
"I don't (bother to) check that (every day) before appearing in front of you," Nikai said at a news conference. "But so far, I have not heard such a thing."
Nikai brushed off indications by investigative sources that the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office plans to question his associates this week over alleged illegal donations from Nishimatsu Construction Co.
Nikai, a veteran lawmaker of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has denied any wrongdoing. On Monday, he told the House of Councilors Budget Committee he had no recollection of receiving donations from the construction company.