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Unpopular and under investigation, veteran politician might still become Japan's next PM

TOKYO (AP) — Veteran Japanese lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa is widely unpopular and could be indicted for political finance violations next month. He also could become Japan's third prime minister in a year.

The 68-year-old powerbroker is trying to topple his own party leader — who became prime minister just three months ago — in an internal ruling party leadership vote Tuesday. If Ozawa wins, experts say it could be a step backward toward the corruption-tainted politics of the past and exacerbate political gridlock at a time Japan badly needs strong leadership.

The yen is spiking to 15-year highs, the economy is in a slump and Japan's public debt is growing by the day — all of which are bad news for faltering global recovery. Instead of pushing a strong economic agenda, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is preoccupied with leadership struggles.

Ozawa has championed deregulation and bureaucratic reforms, but has also been dogged by scandal and is widely seen as an old-style back-room wheeler-dealer.

Opinion polls show the public prefers Prime Minister Naoto Kan, a plainspoken fiscal conservative, by a four-to-one margin over Ozawa, who quit as the party's No. 2 leader in June amid a funding scandal — although he denies wrongdoing.

Ozawa's unpopularity doesn't seem to phase him. A master strategist, he is credited with orchestrating the Democrats' landslide victory in August last year that unseated the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He was on track to becoming prime minister before getting ensnared in the scandal.

Tuesday's vote is being decided among Democratic Party members, a chunk of whom back Ozawa or are beholden to him for helping start their political careers. Because the Democrats control the more powerful lower house of the Diet, or parliament, their leader will almost certainly become prime minister.

If Ozawa wins, "it would take us back to the older, LDP-style politics," said Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo. "The public backlash will be strong, and opposition parties will hammer on Ozawa's problems with money and politics."

Those distractions could make it even harder for the Democrats, who lost control of the less powerful upper house in July elections, to pass legislation and tackle critical problems. Increased gridlock could hasten snap elections, predicts Yamamoto, further perpetuating Japan's leadership merry-go-round.

Ozawa could be indicted as early as next month for violating political finance laws if a citizens' panel demands for a second time that prosecutors charge him. If Ozawa becomes prime minister, he would have constitutional immunity, but he has said he would not "run away" from any charges.

Kan, 63, has a cleaner image, but faces discontent within his party for proposing a sales tax hike just before the July elections — seen as a major reason for the Democrats' defeat.

By all accounts, Tuesday's vote will be close. Kan and Ozawa each have the support of about 170-180 national party lawmakers, media reports say.

Ozawa was a rising star in the then-ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party early in his career and a protege of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, one of Japan's most powerful politicians who was felled by a corruption scandal.

But in the early 1990s, Ozawa broke away from the Liberal Democrats to create a reform-minded opposition party and wrote a best-selling book, "Blueprint for a New Japan," his manifesto for national renewal that called for deregulation and decentralization. He joined the Democrats in 2003.

Yet many believe Ozawa still hasn't broken free from the older, back-room style of Japanese politics.

An Ozawa victory "would be a victory for the pattern of politics that Japan doesn't need anymore ... a pattern of politics that the Japanese public as a whole is profoundly discontent with," said Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "I just can't see this as the wave of the future."

The political infighting has added to the frustration of many Japanese.

"It's embarrassing," says Seiichi Kato, a Tokyo taxi driver. "I think Kan should stay on. If the prime minister changes again, people overseas will wonder what's going on here. They should be tackling the strong yen and falling stock market instead of bickering with each other."