Brazil's Lula Gets Ready for a Belated Victory Party

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Winning reelection was always supposed to be easy for Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and now, four weeks after a surprising stumble, that once again looks likely to be the case. Lula, as he is known to Brazil's 125 million voters, was forced into a runoff in the first round of voting, hurt mainly by a corruption scandal involving his party. But on the eve of Sunday's runoff vote he is far ahead of his rival, as most analysts expected. "If you look at the course of the last five or six months there has only been one poll out of range, and that was on the eve of the election itself," said Dr. Timothy Power, a lecturer at Oxford University's Centre for Brazilian Studies. "Lula had to face the first-round election on his one bad weekend of the year. I think the fact that we have to face a runoff at all is a fluke."

Unseating a storied incumbent with a record approval rating and the loyalty of 45 million poor people who benefit from his wide-ranging assistance programs was always a tall order for Geraldo Alckmin, the candidate of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Alckmin benefited when members of Lula's Workers' Party (PT) were caught trying to buy documents to smear electoral rivals. The scandal helped Alckmin eat into Lula's lead and deny him the 50%-plus-one margin needed to claim outright victory in the first round of voting, which gave Alckmin 41.6% to Lula's 48.6%. But that may be as good as it will get for the former governor of Sao Paulo state. Even after he took the offensive in televised debates with stinging attacks on the endemic corruption inside Lula's government and its poor record on economic growth, Alckmin still trails Lula by a solid 20 points in most polls.

Alckmin's problems were twofold: First, Lula convincingly portrayed the former physician as the candidate of the rich, and Alckmin could not shake off the image in the minds of many voters of a button-down bogeyman out to privatize state assets and roll back the generous benefits programs that help many of Brazil's poor survive. Alckmin performed so well in the debates that Lula called their first confrontation the worst night of his political life. But in a country where informality reigns, Alckmin's starched collars and finely cut suits did not ingratiate him with the poor northeasterners whose support he needed to stand any chance of winning. Compared to Lula's plain speaking and good humor, Alckmin's didactic style and fastidious pronunciation were off-putting. "Alckmin is educated, cultured and he comes across as upper-middle-class elite," said Carlos Manhanelli, the president of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants and a veteran campaign manager. "He looks like he has never suffered and so can't understand ordinary people's problems. Lula has a bond with the masses. He has more credibility."

Lula admitted he was disappointed at his failure to win in the first round, but analysts said the four weeks of additional campaigning may have a positive side for both the candidate and his country. Lula is bit more bloodied and a lot more humbled after four weeks of verbal sparring. Alckmin's attacks have forced him to recognize the importance of being seen to fight corruption, and he may show less tolerance in his second term for miscreants inside his party. Still, the president will take comfort from the electorate's endorsement of his agenda. If the polls are accurate, he can expect a solid mandate.

"If he had squeaked in four weeks ago people would have said he was on the downs. But now he will have the same kind of victory margin as four years ago," said Power. "I think that is a good thing for Lula's democratic legitimacy."