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Brazil Elects New President Sunday - 2002-10-04

Some 115 million Brazilians will go to the polls Sunday in national elections, in which a leftist presidential candidate, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, could become Brazil's first working-class president. Voters also will be choosing new governors, senators and legislators.

On famed Ipanema beach, a coconut vendor sums up the mood going into the election. It's Lula, he says. He'll be a good president, he'll make Brazil move forward.

Opinion polls show Mr. da Silva, a bearded former metalworker and union leader, is far ahead of his three main rivals. With surveys showing his support at around 45 percent, he's within striking distance of winning the absolute majority necessary Sunday to avoid a runoff election later this month.

Political analyst David Fleischer says Mr. da Silva appears to have the momentum going into this election.

"I think he has a good chance, maybe 60 to 70 percent chance of pulling it off on the first round with 50 percent plus one, because he's very, very close," he explained. "He's projected at 49 percent of the valid vote… We also have the bandwagon effect of a lot of people jumping on his bandwagon at the last minute, because it looks like he might win."

Mr. da Silva, one of the founders of the leftist Workers' Party in 1980, is making his fourth run for the presidency. He lost the three previous elections because most Brazilians considered him too radical. This time he has moderated his rhetoric, and has moved toward the center.

Analyst Walder de Goes points out that Mr. da Silva also has benefitted from the desire for change. He said, "It's not Lula, it's the feeling of opposition, which he represents because of his long history. There's a reaction to the policies of the 1990s, and there's a desire for change."

This has hurt the governing party's presidential candidate, Jose Serra who is running a distant second to Lula da Silva. Mr. Serra, a former health minister and senator, was the handpicked choice of current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Mr. Serra has pledged to create more jobs, while maintaining the Cardoso administration's free market economic policies.

Mr. Serra's hope Sunday is that he and the other two major candidates will draw enough votes away from Mr. da Silva to force a runoff election.

However, analysts say Mr. Serra's last effort to convince voters fell short late Thursday, when he failed to put on a stellar performance in a nationwide debate. The results of the debate, billed as decisive, were headlined in most major newspapers Friday. Aside from the Presidential contest, voters will elect the governors of Brazil's 27 states, all 513 members of the lower house of Congress, two-thirds of the Senate, and representatives to the state legislatures. Brazilians will be voting electronically, at 406,000 electronic voting machines throughout the country.

With 170 million people, Brazil is the world's ninth largest economy and one of the biggest emerging markets factors which explain the growing international attention to this upcoming election. If Mr. da Silva wins outright on Sunday, it will be the first time a leftist and member of the working class has been elected president since Brazil became a republic in 1889.