TOKYO (AP) – When Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi 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 Sunday’s elections for the powerful lower house of Parliament, it seems as if the silver-haired leader has only strengthened the LDP’s grip on power.

Two newspaper polls Friday showed the LDP, which has ruled Japan for nearly all of the past half-century, with a hefty lead over top opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan.

Triumph for the LDP on Sunday would mark a major turnaround for a party that only four years ago was widely 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, a politics professor 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.

In the polls at least, the strategy seems to be a winner. Surveys predict the LDP will retain or even strengthen its majority in the 480-seat lower house.

But many in Japan raise the question: has the LDP really changed?

After all, Koizumi himself – like so many of his colleagues – is a party insider and comes from a long line of politicians: both his father and grandfather were prominent lawmakers. Forty percent of LDP-backed candidates are descendants of parliamentarians.

And despite the buzz surrounding this year’s policy-oriented electoral race, the dominant campaign pitch among LDP candidates is hardly groundbreaking: I support the Koizumi government, so vote for me.

At the same time, some local LDP chapters have contradicted Koizumi and are backing anti-reform candidates – casting doubts about how well the prime minister really represents the party as a whole.

“It’s difficult to believe that the kind of thinking symbolized by ‘city-style’ politicians like Koizumi, with little vested policy interests, has spread throughout the LDP,” the national Asahi newspaper said in an editorial.

The opposition argues that most of the talk of reform is rhetoric and not backed up by real achievements. Indeed, Koizumi’s 4-year-old pledges of far-reaching reform have gone largely unrealized.

“What can we expect from Mr. Koizumi, who was not capable of any major reform in four years and four months?” Katsuya Okada, the leader of the DPJ, asked at a recent debate among party heads.

There is also the question of what happens when Koizumi exits the stage. The prime minister says he will step down at the end of his term in September 2006, and there is no likely successor with the same popularity or reformist message.

For some LDP lawmakers, the commitment to Koizumi may only last as long as the campaign.

“LDP members have to rely on Koizumi’s popularity to get them back into office,” said political analyst Kichiya Kobayashi. “But once that’s done, they’re free to do what they want. And some may say enough is enough.”

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