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Brazil Prepares for Dramatic Elections - 2002-10-02

The largest nation in Latin America, Brazil, is preparing for what could be one of the most dramatic presidential elections in its history. Many voters are dissatisfied with the status quo and are looking for what they hope will be a real change.

In the Manaus waterfront market, talk these days is focused on Sunday's election almost as much as it is on the price of fruits, vegetables and fish. This city sits on the banks of the wide river called the Rio Negro, just a few kilometers up from where it joins the Amazon. This lush, tropical area is far removed in many ways from Brazil's urban centers, around 2,000 kilometers to the south.

Yet the talk here, as in other parts of Brazil, is about the economy and the need for more jobs. Many people here say they will vote for Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva for president partly because of his working man image and partly because he has established the momentum of a winner.

Mr. Da Silva, known to everyone by his nickname "Lula," is running television ads that endorse local legislative candidates here in Manaus. He appears to have already moved beyond appealing for votes for himself. The latest public opinion polls show that Lula may be able to win this election in the first round on Sunday, thus avoiding a runoff on October 27, by coincidence his 58th birthday.

But not everyone is convinced that such a victory would be a good thing. One taxi driver says he is afraid Lula will scare away investment and that he will fail to run the country well because he lacks experience. In a city where foreign tourism is a major source of income, there are concerns about what the new government will do to protect the Amazon rainforest and prevent the intrusion of guerrillas and drug traffickers in some remote jungle areas on the border with Colombia.

Brazilian investors have expressed fears about a da Silva victory and the nation's currency, the real has dropped in value in response to his likely win on Sunday. Critics worry that a man who never continued his studies beyond high school will be ill-suited for handling complex international trade issues and the management of Brazil's $260 billion debt. The candidate's supporters, however, say that their man is more than a leftist rabble rouser. On this, his fourth attempt to win the presidency, Mr. Da Silva has taken to wearing business suits and a tie. He has also toned down his anti-free trade rhetoric some and surrounded himself with business sector advisors.

But Lourdes, a Brazilian citizen who has homes in both Brazil and Florida, says some of her friends in the wealthy classes fear Lula will become another Hugo Chavez, referring to the leftist president of Venezuela whose rule has been characterized by political chaos and a sharp slide in the economy. Still, she says, Brazilians from all parts of society are disappointed with the country's current direction and many people are ready to take a chance on someone who promises a drastic change. "Intellectuals, rich and poor. Everybody wants change," says Loudes. "Maybe it is not Lula, they just want change."

Lourdes says that while some wealthy Brazilians have taken money out of the country, others are trying to work with the man who is likely to be their new president in hopes of moderating his policies. "Now the bankers are giving some help to Lula," she says. "Bankers and also a lot of investors, Brazilian investors, they changed completely."

Although Lula's speeches still contain a lot of nationalist bombast and criticism of free trade policies, they are also much more moderate than were his speeches in previous elections. He has even gained the support of some important industrial groups. His vice presidential running mate is a textile magnate who comes from the centrist Liberal Party. This alliance with Lula's leftist Workers Party is unprecedented in Brazilian politics.

The decision on who should be Brazil's new president will be made by voters next Sunday, and, if he wins, the decision on what path Brazil will take in the future will be made by the man everyone here calls Lula.