TOKYO -- When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan came to power four years ago, he boldly pledged to sacrifice his long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party for the sake of enacting reform.
But with the approach of tomorrow's elections for the powerful lower house of Parliament, it seems as if Koizumi has only strengthened the Liberal Democratic Party's grip on power.
Two newspaper polls yesterday indicated the Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, which has ruled Japan for nearly all of the past half-century, with a hefty lead over the top opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ.
Triumph for the LDP would mark a major turnaround for a party that only four years ago was considered too riddled with corruption and bankrupt ideas to last much longer in power.
Much of the credit goes to Koizumi.
''I believe if Koizumi had not become prime minister in 2001, the DPJ would have booted the LDP from office by now," said Yoshiaki Kobayashi, professor of politics at Keio University in Tokyo. ''Now, that's very unlikely."
Indeed, Koizumi's persona -- his meticulously styled mane, his love of opera, his enjoyment of the limelight -- has become synonymous with ''reform" in Japan, where voters have long suffered under crusty wheeler-dealers more adept at doling out payoffs than charming an audience.
The 63-year-old prime minister has also talked a good game, promising to battle the powers-that-be while skillfully using the media to drag Japan into an era of populist politics in which image is a key ingredient for success.
That image has only been enhanced in recent weeks, when Koizumi purged dozens of party members opposed to his effort to privatize the postal, savings, and insurance services.
But the Liberal Democratic Party's long-honed adaptability has also played its role.
While technically a single party, the LDP is more a broad coalition of groups, giving it an uncanny ability to absorb the best ideas of the opposition and make them its own. In that sense, Koizumi's selection as party leader four years ago -- and his success so far in making the LDP look like a party of reform -- was a brilliant act of self-preservation.
''By choosing Koizumi as prime minister, the LDP beat the opposition at its own game," said Kobayashi.