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Brazil's Leading Presidential Candidate Moderates Socialist Past

One issue in Brazil's upcoming presidential election is whether the front-runner and his left-wing Workers' Party have moved toward the political center as they claim, or are still caught up in their socialist past. Opinion polls show many more Brazilians are supporting Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva instead of his rivals. But questions still remain over where he will lead Brazil if he is elected.

Mr. da Silva, a former metalworker and union leader, is making his fourth run for the presidency. But this time his chances appear better than ever, in large part because he now appears more moderate, and his rhetoric less confrontational. Gone are speeches from past campaigns in which he openly espoused socialism, called for a debt moratorium, and was clearly anti-private sector.

Now he speaks of fostering foreign investment, and promoting business, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. Mr. da Silva, commonly known by his nickname Lula, also has pledged to respect the terms of a $30 billion from the International Monetary Fund. The terms call for, among other things, maintaining a primary budget surplus which will curtail government spending. As for Brazil's $260-billion debt, he no longer advocates a payment moratorium.

Mr. da Silva, who is 56, says he and his Workers' Party (P.T.), have changed over the years since the party was founded in 1980. He told foreign journalists in Sao Paulo this week political labels are no longer relevant for him.

"I don't like being labeled. For me, there's no advantage in saying that I'm center-left, or leftist," he said. "I'm just a Brazilian citizen who is a member of a party that has come up with a democratic and popular plan, which will be carried out point by point. That's our idea."

His program calls for among other things, raising the minimum wage, improving public health care, and diverting more resources to social programs. His party platform talks about the need for a new "social contract" that will foster more social and economic justice.

Brazil, which is the ninth largest economy in the world, suffers from widespread poverty. About one third of its population, or 53 million people, live below the poverty line.

His campaign promises, along with a desire for change by the Brazilian electorate, have made Lula da Silva a front-runner for the October 6 election.

But some analysts say doubts remain about Mr. da Silva and his party's conversion. University of Brasilia political scientist Luis Pedone says despite Mr. da Silva's campaign ads stressing moderation, there is still uncertainty.

"There is uncertainty about not him himself, but how his government could be if he wins the election," he said. "How his government will act, what are the real policies of the future P.T. government winning the election. Are they going to be similar to those showed on election campaign [ads] or are they going to be different policies, but like those which were proposed in the election campaigns in 1998 and 1994."

This uncertainty is widespread in the financial markets. The Brazilian currency, the real, has lost about 40 percent its value this year, in large part because of market nervousness over a Lula da Silva victory.

Many business executives remain skeptical about the front-runner and the P.T., though some prominent businessmen have publicly expressed support for Mr. da Silva.

The head of Rio de Janeiro's Federation of Industries, Eduardo Gouvea, says he will miss current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who for the past eight years carried out free market reforms. But Mr. Gouvea told VOA he has no fears that a da Silva government will turn Brazil to the left.

"What is left today in the world, what does it mean? After the Berlin Wall, what does it mean left? What we need for development is to create jobs, we need to be in peace," he said.

Still, the question remains and is being used by Mr. da Silva's chief rival, Jose Serra, of the governing party. In a series of negative ads recently, the Serra campaign tried to portray the P.T. as a radical leftist party. However, the ads were pulled when surveys showed voters reacting against negative campaigning.

However, this week President Cardoso, in a speech praising Mr. Serra, called on voters not to choose between personalities but policies. Without naming Mr. da Silva, the Brazilian leader warned against voting for someone who remains stuck in the past, with solutions, as he put it, "from the 1960s to address problems of the 21st century".

So far, this kind of criticism has not affected Mr. da Silva's standing with the electorate. Despite any questions over ideology, opinion polls show him with around 42 percent of the vote and at least one as high as 45 percent. This would put Mr. da Silva within striking distance of winning the absolute majority necessary on Sunday to avoid a second round later in the month.

If this happens, Brazil will have its first president who comes from the working class and whatever his political label, is almost certain to move the South American giant in a different direction.