TOKYO - Japan's main opposition party will vote on Saturday for a new leader to replace scandal-tainted Ichiro Ozawa, in a move likely to boost its fading poll ratings ahead of an election just months away.
The Democratic Party had a clear poll lead until a funding scandal erupted and threatened its chances of ousting Prime Minister Taro Aso's conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled Japan for almost all of the past five decades.
Analysts said the Democrats' platform -- the core of which is a pledge to break bureaucrats' grip on policy to reduce wasteful spending and end the cosseting of vested interests -- was unlikely to change much, no matter who leads the party.
The Democrats have also vowed to strengthen the social safety net, revive domestic demand in the midst of a deep recession and pay more heed to consumers and workers than companies.
For possible successors, analysts have focused on former party leader Katsuya Okada, 55, a soft-spoken former trade official with a Mr Clean image, and Yukio Hatoyama, 62, another ex-party chief and a fourth generation politician who was one of Ozawa's deputies.
I would like to think about it ... The important thing is what I should do to realize a change in government, Kyodo news agency quoted Okada as saying.
Democratic lawmakers from parliament's two houses will take part in the vote after Ozawa resigned on Monday.
The person needs to have the will, decisiveness and courage to be prime minister, and above all, a vision and an ability to encourage and energize people, said former party leader Seiji Maehara, adding he had no plans to run.
Ozawa's decision to quit had little impact on financial markets, although many players want to see an end to a political stalemate that has stymied policy in the world's second-biggest economy as it struggles with its worst recession in 60 years.
EAGER FOR CHANGE?
In terms of winning popularity, Okada would be best, but in terms of internal party dynamics, Hatoyama would be better, said Keio University professor Yasunori Sone. The Democrats' biggest weakness is the lack of a clear macroeconomic policy.
Policy making in Japan has been hampered since opposition parties won control of parliament's upper house in 2007, allowing them to delay legislation.
The Democrats, a decade-old party including former LDP members, ex-socialists and younger conservatives, had looked poised to win the election until Ozawa's aide was arrested and charged with accepting illegal campaign donations in March.
Analysts say the party could now regain momentum -- if it selects a new leader without the internal squabbling that has plagued the Democrats in the past.
The Japanese electorate is eager for change, so long as they can overcome their fear that the Dems are not capable of ruling, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Aso, 68, had seen his public support rise above 30 percent in some polls since the opposition scandal broke.
But the prime minister insisted on Monday the opposition drama would not affect his decision on the timing of an election.
Aso has said he wants to focus on enacting an extra budget to fund a record 15 trillion yen ($153 billion) stimulus package.
That budget is likely to be approved by the lower house this week and take effect 30 days later even without approval by the opposition-controlled upper chamber.
Analysts said the general election was unlikely to be called until after Aso attends a Group of Eight summit in Italy in early July and after a Tokyo Metropolitan assembly election on July 12, partly in the hope that the economy will improve by then.
Early August, late August -- it's hard to tell, said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano. Given Aso's record of waiting, unless he's become a different person, he is going to want to wait for a better time.