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Brazil's Presidential Elections: What Lies Ahead - 2002-09-26

With 10 days to go for Brazil's presidential election, a leftist candidate tops the opinion polls and may win a first round victory with an absolute majority of the votes. The focus of the race now is to see who will come in second, and possibly face the frontrunner in a runoff election later in October.

The catchy campaign song for leftist candidate Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva invites Brazilians to vote for change. "Only if you want it," goes the song, "then it will happen."

Mr. da Silva, a former metal worker and union leader known by his nickname, Lula, has stressed the theme of change after eight-years of a centrist government that brought economic stability, but low growth.

Brazil, the world's ninth-largest economy, is still struggling to overcome widespread poverty. About 53 million people, one-third of the population, live below the poverty line and Brazil's income distribution is one of the most skewed in the world.

University of Brasilia professor Luiz Pedone says voters appear to want change that will bring economic growth. "There is a hope, a need, and demand for change after eight-years of the same government. For change of government, change of doing other things that could work better in terms of employment, in terms of making the economy grow, that we have not had in the past 10 years. The average growth has been very little, 2 percent a year, which for a country like Brazil is nothing," Mr. Pedone said.

Opinion polls show Mr. da Silva has successfully capitalized on this desire for change, and now leads his three major rivals with around 40 percent of the intended vote.

Some surveys show Mr. da Silva could win an absolute majority October sixth an outright victory that would let him avoid a runoff election later in the month with the candidate who finishes second.

This prospect has spooked financial markets that fear Mr. da Silva and his leftist Workers' Party, known as PT would halt the free-market reforms of the current government. The markets also are uncertain about how a President Lula would manage Brazil's $260 billion debt.

As a result, Brazil's currency the "real" has sunk to record lows against the U.S. dollar.

Analyst Pedone says this reflects uncertainty over the true intentions of leftist Workers' Party. "There is this unknown question about whether the PT is going to be a social democratic [party] playing within the rules of the game in modern, contemporary capitalism or is it going to still be a party that will propose socialism, and statism, etc," he said.

Mr. Da Silva who ran unsuccessfully for President three-times before has moderated his tone and leftist views in an effort to relieve concerns.

Much of Brazil's business community favors Mr. Da Silva's chief rival, Jose Serra of the governing Social Democratic Party. Mr. Serra, a former health minister, has pledged to continue economic reforms and create eight million jobs if elected President.

But opinion polls show him with only 20 percent of the vote.

In an attempt to boost his chances, Mr. Serra launched negative campaign ads against Lula da Silva. But political analyst Fabiano Santos says this may have backfired. "It is a very aggressive campaign. If you are trying to win an election only by punching your opponents, I think democratically speaking it is not a very good start, not a very good beginning of a government. I think this is the basic difficulty in Serra's campaign," Mr. Santos said.

The negative ads failed to generate much support, and the Serra campaign has decided to change strategy.

But Mr. Serra's hold on second place is shaky as surveys show a third candidate, former populist governor Anthony Garotinho gaining ground. Mr. Garotinho, who governed Rio de Janeiro state, is campaigning on the promise to raise Brazil's minimum wage, which is about $55 a month.

A fourth candidate, Ciro Gomes of a Workers' Front coalition, was running a strong second in August, but lost much of his support after a series of campaign blunders.

In the days remaining until the October sixth election, support for the various candidates will start to consolidate. Much will depend on who comes in second if Mr. da Silva does not win outright on election day.

But if Mr. Serra continues to stumble, Brazil could face the prospect of choosing between two leftist populists in a runoff election on October 27.