Koizumi hopes charisma can carry election

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The Independent Online

Yashihide Suga, a typically grey and charisma-free member of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, was having difficulty holding the interest of shoppers outside a Tokyo train station last week. No wonder he beamed with delight when a black car pulled up and disgorged the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, who took the microphone to loud applause. "I need you to vote for this man," said Mr Koizumi, with his arm around Mr Suga. "Please help us continue our reforms."

It was a telling illustration of how much the LDP, which has ruled Japan almost continuously for nearly 50 years, is depending on Mr Koizumi's political allure for tomorrow's crucial Lower House election. Although his lustre has faded since his stunning rise to power two-and-a-half years ago, when he was mobbed like a rock-star wherever he went, Mr Koizumi is still seen by many in Japan as the best option in a country starved of real political talent.

Ironically, much of the Prime Minister's popularity depends on his image as a reformist challenger of the status quo that his own party epitomises. Mr Koizumi is adept at burnishing this image, which is why he recently pushed two of Japan's oldest political warhorses, Yasuhiro Nakasone, 85, and Kiichi Miyazawa, 84, into retirement in an effort to give the LDP a more youthful look. Whether there is substance behind the style is a moot point.

Mr Koizumi has backtracked on a number of political pledges, including a promise to cap public bond issuance at ¥30,000bn (£164bn) in anattempt to curb Japan's massive public debt. He has been slow to tackle the corruption and cronyism endemic in the Japanese system, and his pet project, the privatisation of the country's post office -with assets worth a staggering ¥350,000bn - has been delayed.

Naoto Kan, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, is so desperate to knock the LDP off its plinth that he has hinted at a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and even the Communists (JCP). During the election campaign Mr Kan has focused onMr Koizumi's weakest point, his promise if re-elected to send Japanese military personnel to support the unpopular US-led war in Iraq.

If Mr Kan does well, he will have achieved the holy grail of Japanese politics, the establishment of a genuine two-party political system.

Most polls, however, are showing the LDP coming out on top. If his party wins, Mr Koizumi will be on the way to becoming Japan's longest-serving prime minister in 30 years. It is a remarkable political balancing act by a man who has promised so much while delivering so little.