Japan's ruling party Saturday formally abandoned its pursuit of Masayoshi Ito to take over as prime minister in the wake of the Recruit share scandal, leaving the leadership in limbo.

Political analysts said Ito's refusal to allow business as usual as the successor to Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita had thrown Japanese politics into complete disarray and, some said, the way was clear for reforms.Ito's stand against the big-money politics and the influence of special interest groups that led to the Recruit scandal has seriously embarrassed the party.

He was the only one of the senior leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party untouched by the scandal.

Some commentators believe Ito could still become premier.

"There is no one else who is suitable and who has been left unscathed by Recruit. Everyone will have to reconsider their positions and nothing is certain," said one, who declined to be named.

But other analysts said senior party leaders remained anxious to avoid wholesale changes.

The vacuum left by Ito had even opened up the possibility that Takeshita might be able to cling to power beyond the end of the month.

"The LDP has always thought of shrewd tactics to overcome a situation where everybody thought they would lose," said Tadashi Iyasu, a professor of politics at Osaka University.

"I am interested in seeing with what they will come up with this time."

Ito had already formally declined the premiership Friday, although both LDP officials and political analysts felt his decision might have been a tactical move to wring more concessions from his colleagues to help him clean up Japanese politics.

Ryutaro Hashimoto, LDP deputy secretary-general, told reporters the search for a new prime minister would resume next Tuesday when the LDP's executive and general councils meet.

The reputations of the LDP leaders as powerbrokers have been dented by Ito's refusal and the Japanese media is speculating that LDP secretary general Shintaro Abe, facing gallstone surgery next week, will resign as a result.

Hashimoto said he would be taking on Abe's role in the negotiations to find a successor for Taskeshita, the most senior party figure to be caught in the Recruit scandal.

Recruit, a large and aggressive telecommunications and publishing group, paid out some $75 million in pre-listed shares, political contributions and other donations to dozens of politicians, civil servants and businessmen.

Public prosecutors have so far arrested 13 businessmen and civil servants and questioned one senior politician in connection with Recruit and have determined that some of the handouts were bribes.