President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spurned Thursday's televised debate and was massacred in his absence. The next day newspapers published incriminating photos of cash Lula's Workers' Party (PT) was allegedly using to pay for a document smearing its opponents. Together, the two incidents dealt crushing blows to the incumbent leader and enabled his closest challenger, Geraldo Alckmin, to gain enough votes to force a runoff on Oct. 29. In final results announced Monday morning, Lula had 48.6% of the vote, against Alckmin's 41.6%.
Alckmin's sudden rise he had rarely polled more than 30% was a shock to Lula, who believed his landmark social programs and solid handling of the economy would be enough to give him an outright win. Analysts said many voters made up their minds to vote for Alckmin at the last minute not because they like him but because they wanted more time to make a decision. Lula's refusal to participate in the debate left many voters angry, and they wanted to punish him by forcing a runoff. "People thought, why am I going to vote for someone who doesn't take the time to explain himself?" said Ricardo Caldas, a professor at the University of Brasilia's Institute of Political Science. "They wouldn't forgive him for being so full of himself."
Lula remains the favorite to win. Assuming he retains his current level of support, he needs just one in seven of the available votes to put himself over the 50 percent mark. But that may not be as easy as it sounds. Neither of the two main defeated candidates are likely to back him. Heloisa Helena, the former PT Senator who polled 6.9%, has never forgiven Lula for throwing her out of the party for being too leftist. And Cristovam Buarque, another disillusioned former PT stalwart who polled 2.6% with a single-issue campaign focused on education, should see his supporters move towards Alckmin.
The regional divide in the country presents Lula with another problem. Alckmin won the more prosperous states in the south and center of the country and Lula the poorer ones in the north and northeast. The better-educated and wealthier voters care more about ethics, and Alckmin knows this: It was only after he concentrated his attacks on widespread corruption inside the PT that his numbers rose. "I think Alckmin's strategy will be to continue on about the ethical questions and the scandals of the PT that are Lula's weak point," said Geraldo Monteiro, president of the Brazilian Institute of Social Research. "He can win it, he can most certainly win it. Lula without doubt underestimated him and he is paying the price for his haughtiness."
Lula's first task will be to come down from his ivory tower and engage voters again, and in the process, halt Alckmin's momentum. He has already started to, calling only the second press conference of his presidency to try and connect with voters in the folksy way only he can. If that doesn't work, you can bet that the race for the presidency will really get dirty and a lot more interesting.