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Japan Democrats' No. 2 moves to defuse criticism

TOKYO (Reuters) - The kingpin of Japan’s floundering ruling party, Ichiro Ozawa, tried to soften his autocratic image on Tuesday ahead of a key election by urging an outspoken critic to stay on in a senior party position.

A plane approaches to land at the U.S. Futenma air base as a family look on, in Ginowan, southern island of Okinawa March 31, 2006. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Yukio Ubukata had been set for dismissal after saying last week most members of the Democratic Party thought Ozawa should resign if he failed to regain public trust after three of his current and former aides were charged in a funding scandal.

But Ozawa asked Ubukata on Tuesday to stay on, and the offer was accepted.

“I told him that this is an important time for the party to unite and cooperate ahead of the upper house election,” Ozawa told a news conference.

Ozawa sidestepped a question about whether he would try to explain the funding scandal better, as Ubukata has suggested.

Though he has no cabinet post, Ozawa is widely seen as the real power behind the government and his strategic skills as essential for an upper house election expected in July, in which the party needs to win a majority to avoid political deadlock.

But polls show fundraising scandals overshadowing him and other ruling party lawmakers are the main reason for the government’s tumbling support rates.

Only 30.5 percent of respondents to a poll published in the Sankei newspaper on Tuesday said they supported Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government, compared with levels of more than 70 percent when he took office in September.

About 92 percent of respondents said the scandals would have an impact on the election and more than 85 percent said they were dissatisfied with the party’s management of fundraising issues.

Though more than 72 percent said they were unhappy with the dismissal of Ubukata, it was unclear whether reversing the decision would have much impact on support rates, given voter concerns about a range of issues.

“It’s a little too late. The problem had already become public, so even if he (Ubukata) returns, the rates won’t bounce back,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor at Nihon University.

“They know that Ozawa is a problem ... The fundamental problem has yet to go away, so it is possible that there would be more mess inside the party,” Iwai said.

Nearly half of those who responded to the Sankei poll said Hatoyama should quit if he fails to resolve a row over a U.S. airbase by the end of May. The row is contributing to the erosion of support.

Hatoyama raised hopes during his election campaign last year that the Futenma U.S. Marine base could be moved off the southern island of Okinawa, but there is no sign of a feasible alternative plan two months ahead of the deadline he set himself.

More than 73 percent of voters polled by the Sankei said they were unhappy with his management of the problem, while nearly 85 percent of respondents said they were unimpressed with Hatoyama’s leadership skills overall.

The Democrats won a landslide victory in the lower house last year, but need a majority in the less powerful upper house to pass bills without delay, something that could be vital as they try to nurture the fragile economy and control public debt.

Just over 29 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Democrats this time, compared with 24 percent for the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party.

Additional reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Paul Tait