TOKYO - It sounds like mission impossible: Take the developed world's longest-ruling political party, one weighed down by a history of corruption, waste and patronage, and turn it into a symbol of dynamic change.
Japanese voters will decide whether Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has accomplished that task for his Liberal Democratic Party during today's elections for the 480 seats in the powerful lower house of Parliament.
The balloting caps a dramatic campaign that has broken new ground in postwar Japanese history, heralding the emergence of media-driven image politics and a sharper focus on policy, in this case Koizumi's quest to privatize the cash-rich postal service as part of economic reforms.
"I want to hear the people's opinion," Koizumi howled into a clutch of microphones at a campaign stop at a Tokyo train station Saturday afternoon. Some surveys indicated the LDP, which has ruled for most of the past 50 years, would strengthen its majority.
Candidates battled down to the final minutes of the campaign Saturday over a large bloc of undecided voters.
On the outskirts of Tokyo, Koizumi's main rival, Katsuya Okada, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, argued that the country has more pressing concerns than the postal service, such as the strained pension system and burgeoning government debt.
"Japan faces problems of decreasing population, an aging society and increasing national debts," Okada said. "Mr. Koizumi sounds as if life will be all rosy if the postal service is privatized, but no one takes what he says seriously."
Koizumi, however, has skillfully dominated the agenda during the campaign with his plan to put the postal service's $3-trillion in assets into private hands as a way to make the money available for investment in Japan's struggling economy.
When his pet project to split up and sell off Japan Post's mail, insurance and savings services was torpedoed by Parliament's upper house Aug. 8, he dissolved the lower house and called early elections, saying the ballot would be a referendum on reform.
Since then, the bachelor prime minister, who sports a silvery mop-top and a passion for opera, has kept voters riveted by purging 37 anti-reform lawmakers from his party. He drafted celebrity candidates, including a TV chef and an Internet mogul, to run as "assassins" against his enemies.
The drama has fascinated a country long accustomed to candidate lists full of LDP backroom wheeler-dealers whose only competition came from a splintered and ineffectual leftist opposition.
The party's image had sunk so low that when Koizumi took the reins in 2001 the LDP was widely considered a spent force that would collapse once a viable opposition emerged. Now he is seen as one of the most dynamic Japanese political personalities of the postwar era.
"He's accomplished the impossible," said Gerald Curtis, an expert in Japanese politics at Columbia University in New York. "He's turned the DPJ ... into a party that's against change, and he's turned LDP, a party that's resisted (change), into the symbol of reform."
Koizumi's gambit has given Japan's famously conservative voters the chance to vote for reform while not having to go with an untested opposition.
"I support him - he's better than the politicians we've had up to now," Sadako Eto, 64, said after watching Koizumi speak in Tokyo. "The LDP has run Japan for 50 peaceful years, so it's better to maintain that stability."
While most Japanese are fuzzy on the details, Koizumi's bid to privatize the post office seems to appeal on several fronts: Its "neo-liberal" push to loosen up the economy sounds modern and it capitalizes on the rising tide in Japan against a bloated bureaucracy.
The plan, however, has strong critics, even within the LDP. Many in rural areas - the traditional bedrock of LDP support - fear privatization will reduce services, while the postal workers union fears job cuts. And the postal savings accounts have long served as a slush fund for LDP pork-barrel projects blamed for waste and corruption.
"In the past, the LDP ran the country, but nothing has changed," said Masatoshi Kido, 28, a firefighter who listened to Okada on Saturday. "They just keep increasing taxes over and over and life is getting more and more difficult."HOT ISSUES
POSTAL REFORM: The ruling Liberal Democratic Party wants to privatize the postal agency by 2017 and split it into private companies handling mail delivery, banking and insurance. The plan would transfer to the private sector as many as 400,000 public servants and some $3-trillion that Japan Post holds in savings and insurance deposits. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan wants to lower the cap on individual saving deposits from $91,600 to $45,800 over the next eight years.
PENSION SYSTEM: Japan's national pension system is expected to run into serious trouble as the population ages. Koizumi pledged not to raise taxes to fund the system, while the Democrats want to increase the consumption tax rate to 8 percent from 5 percent.
MILITARY POLICY/IRAQ: The LDP backs changing the postwar pacifist Constitution to allow Japan's military to take part in international peacekeeping missions, and Koizumi has sent noncombat troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to support U.S.-led operations. The Democrats pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq by December although it also supports some changes to the Constitution.