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Veteran Ozawa to stay as Japan opposition chief

Written by: Staff
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TOKYO, Sep 12 (Reuters) Veteran Japanese lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa, a one-time ruling party heavyweight, will stay on as leader of the main opposition Democratic Party as it prepares for a key parliamentary election next year.

Ozawa, 64, was the only candidate to file for the party presidency by today's deadline and will be endorsed in a party convention on September 25 to hold the post for two years.

One of Japan's best-known politicians, he was elected party president in April to serve out the remaining term of his predecessor, who resigned over a scandal.

Ozawa, who has a reputation as a reformer but has been accused of autocratic tactics that have made him enemies inside the party, said the top priority for the Democrats was to win the upper house election next summer.

''Above anything else, our goal is to win the understanding and support of the people and gain a majority in next year's upper house election,'' he told a news conference.

''I would like to put all my energy into this.'' Ozawa said in his policy platform that while he would seek a ''free, transparent and open'' economy, the party should also aim to build a safety net to deal with social gaps that some critics say have widened during Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's five years in power.

The Democrats, an amalgam of conservatives and former socialists, suffered a beating in a general election last September against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Koizumi.

They hope to turn their fortunes around in the upper house race and deal a blow against the LDP, which is also set to choose a new leader on September 20.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who looks almost certain to win the LDP race and hence become Prime Minister due to the party's majority in the powerful lower house, has criticised Ozawa for forming new parties and then leaving them.

He left the LDP with about 40 other lawmakers in 1993, setting off a chain reaction that ended its four-decade rule and replaced it for a year with a reform-minded coalition.

Since an LDP-led coalition came back into power in June 1994, Ozawa has formed a number of new parties, and briefly took part in a ruling bloc until he joined the Democrats in September 2003.

Ozawa was an early advocate of clarifying the military's ambiguous status under Japan's pacifist constitution, as well as a more equal diplomatic partnership with the United States and a bigger role for Japan in Asia.

REUTERS SAM BS1607

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