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Brazilian Presidential Runoff: Choice Between Continuity and Change - 2002-10-26

Sunday's presidential runoff election in Brazil will give voters a choice between continuity and change. Opinion polls indicate most Brazilian voters will opt for change, as embodied by a populist former union leader.

Sunday's election pits Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers' Party, or PT, against former Health Minister Jose Serra of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party, PSDB.

Mr. Serra, whose party belongs to the center-right coalition that has governed Brazil for eight years, represents continuity, with the government's economic and social policies. Mr. da Silva, who is making his fourth run for the presidency, promises change, but without the radical prescriptions he advocated in the past.

Analyst Walder de Goes says Mr. da Silva has become more moderate. "He moved toward the center. He reorganized and reformed his agenda, and the agenda of the PT today is very similar to that of the PSDB, and both are similar to the social democratic parties of Europe."

This move to the center helped Mr. da Silva, known universally as Lula, win 46 percent of the vote in the first round on October 6. Mr. Serra finished second with 23 percent. The two other candidates, both of the opposition, threw their support behind Lula after the election.

Opinion polls show the burly former metalworker is likely to win by a landslide Sunday. The latest surveys show Mr. Serra trailing the left-wing candidate by more than 30 points.

Mr. da Silva, who turns 57 on Sunday, was born to a poor rural family in northeastern Brazil, the country's most backward region. He gained renown in the late 1970's as a union leader and opponent of the military government. Jailed for a time by the dictatorship, he went on to found the leftist Workers' Party in 1980, and became a politician.

Rival Jose Serra also grew up poor, as the son of a fruit vendor. He went on to become a student leader in the 1960's and vocal opponent of the military government. Mr. Serra left Brazil for a life of exile, during which he received advanced degrees in economics in Chile and the United States. As health minister under the current government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mr. Serra became well-known for enacting programs to provide cheap generic drugs and free medication to treat HIV-AIDS.

Mr. Serra has campaigned on his record in government, and has promised to maintain financial stability by continuing free-market reforms. But Mr. Serra's chances appear to have been hurt by slow economic growth and the continuing decline of the Brazilian currency because of months of market uncertainty over the elections.

Analyst Christopher Garman of the Sao Paulo consulting firm, Tendencias, says Mr. Serra also has suffered from the falling popularity of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "There's a general sentiment that something needs to be changed from the status quo of the current government. During Fernando Henrique [Cardoso's] second mandate, he's suffered from low popularity ratings after the devaluation of the real in 1999," he said. "He has been recovering slightly ever since, and he obtained his best approval ratings in June. This is why we at Tendencias thought Serra might have a decent chance. What we couldn't forecast was the worsening of market expectations, and as a consequence, his drop in popularity, which was much worse than expected."

For his part, Mr. da Silva has campaigned on promises to revive economic growth and create more jobs, while enacting more social programs to help the poor. One of his proposals is to create a food stamp program similar to that of the United States to help feed 11 million poor Brazilians.

Brazil, the world's ninth largest economy, has an estimated one-third of its 170 million people living below the poverty line. Mr. da Silva, as the champion of the poor, has promised to alleviate this poverty and inequality. But at a recent rally, he also warned Brazilians not to expect miracles.