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Opinion Polls Show Brazilian Leftist Candidate's Popularity Increasing - 2002-05-16

Opinion polls show the presidential candidate of Brazil's leftist Workers Party has extended his lead over his rivals and could win next October's election. The prospect worries some in the business sector - even though the candidate says he and his party have changed and matured.

The latest opinion poll is good news for 56-year-old Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. The survey by the firm Datafolha shows Mr. da Silva, known to Brazilians as "Lula", with 43 percent - a gain of 11 points since the last Datafolha poll on April 9. Mr. da Silva's lead over his closest rival, Jose Serra of the governing Brazilian Social Democratic party, jumped from 10 to 26 percentage points.

These are the highest poll numbers ever for Mr. da Silva, who is making his fourth run for the presidency. A former metalworker and union leader, he is drawing support from a wide cross-section of Brazilians who are unhappy with the economic record of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Throughout his administration - which has spanned nearly eight years - Mr. Cardoso has succeeded in keeping inflation down, fostered steady economic growth and stabilized the currency following a sharp devaluation in 1999. However, Brazil continues to suffer from widespread poverty. Of the country's 170 million people, 53 million live below the poverty line.

Political scientist David Fleischer says Mr. da Silva is benefiting from the apparent desire for change by much of the electorate. "The main reason for the preference for Lula is an aversion to all that is going on in Brazil and a rejection on the part of the voters of the Cardoso government," he said. "The feeling on the part of the population is that we want to have a change."

Mr. da Silva also is benefiting from his more moderate discourse. Gone is the socialist rhetoric of the past, replaced with promises to maintain economic stability. Meeting with foreign journalists in Rio de Janeiro this week, Mr. da Silva said he would strive to keep inflation down and honor Brazil's commitments to repay its foreign debt.

Asked whether he has changed, Mr. da Silva said he and his Workers Party, the PT, have matured. "I think I have changed, and changed a lot," he said. "Today, I think the PT is much more mature, wiser. And the reason the PT has changed is that it now for some years has been governing important cities and governing important states. It has an extraordinary representation in both houses of Congress - and all this has matured the party, and provided the framework for a party with the characteristics of the PT.

The PT governs five states, and the mayor of the giant metropolis of Sao Paulo also is a party member.

Analyst David Fleischer, who teaches at the University of Brasilia, says the PT has gained a reputation for running clean and efficient governments. "The domestic business people who have had experience in dealing with PT governments, municipal and state governments, have learned that the PT runs pretty clean governments," he said. "In other words, they do not charge any kickbacks on the way in, nor do they charge any side payments on the way out once you have done your services or performed your public work. So business people in Brazil who have dealt with PT governments give them quite high marks in terms of being clean and running an efficient administration."

Despite this, the prospect of a da Silva administration worries many. International banks and brokerage houses recently raised Brazil's risk assessment in response to the polls showing Mr. da Silva's gains. The PT candidate's high-profile trips to Cuba and his support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also have generated criticism from some quarters.

But Mr. da Silva is striving to allay these concerns. "This election is another reality, and we do not want to throw this opportunity away," he said. "We know we cannot convince everyone, but we want to convince the majority of people that the PT can be good for Brazil. That is our objective - to run a campaign where social issues are the order of the day."

In the weeks leading up to the October 6 election, Brazilian voters will have ample time to decide whether they should give Mr. da Silva and his party the chance they are seeking.