Mixed Results for Lula in Brazil Election

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Brazilians went to the polls in municipal elections on Sunday, and although the 5,000-odd campaigns focused on local issues such as roads and health care, the central figure looming over proceedings was, once again, the country's charismatic President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Having distributed billions in social programs, kept inflation and unemployment low and helped foment a credit boom that has enabled millions of people buy their first cars and houses, Lula is hugely popular. More than two-thirds of Brazilians consider his government excellent or good, according to recent polls, and his own personal approval rating last week hit 80%, a record for a sitting president. Still, although Lula's Worker' Party (PT) had a strong showing around Brazil, the verdict of the voters appeared, at best, to be a mixed one.

Most stunning was the PT's second-place finish in the financial powerhouse of Sao Paolo, Brazil's largest city. PT mayoral candidate Marta Suplicy, who only last week held a 9-point lead over incumbent Gilberto Kassab of the conservative Democrat Party according one major poll, won just 32.5% of the vote, behind Kassab's 33.7%. The race will be settled in an October 26 runoff, while another will be required in Brazil's second-largest city, Rio De Janeiro. There, Green Party candidate Fernando Gabeira took a suprising 25% to finish second behind the centrist Eduardo Paes of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, who won 31%. Still, the PT positioned itself well for the 2010 general election by capturing six of Brazil's 27 state capitals — it will contest runoffs in another three — and also because its left-wing coalition won the capital in the important agricultural state of Minas Gerais.

Lula's popularity had prompted candidates all over this vast nation to do their best to associate themselves with the former union leader, in the hope of winning election on his coattails. In several towns, courts even intervened to stop opponents illegitimately adopting Lula's image or the Workers' Party's distinctive red flag, while Lula himself has stayed away from some cities to avoid having to choose between the various candidates who can justifiably claim his support.

"All politicians want to be associated with Lula because they think that if they approve of Lula and are his friend they will get votes," said Ricardo Caldas, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, shortly before the election. "That is why he cannot even travel to Rio. He can't say I support X or Y or Z."

Brazil's complex and often contradictory political system allowed a diverse range of candidates to claim a link with the ruling Workers' Party. Ideology plays little part in Brazilian politics and allegiances are often formed between disparate groups. Parties that govern together on a national stage compete against each other at state and municipal level, and vice versa. Lula even supported some politicians running against his own Workers' Party candidates.

Faced with such bewildering choices, voters tend to opt for personalities rather than policies, said Carlos Manhanelli, the president of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants. "You vote for a personality because there is no political fidelity," Manhanelli said. "You can vote for someone today and tomorrow they jump to another party. You never know what you are getting. People change parties here like they change their shirts."

And the focus on personalities has prompted many candidates to create outlandish personas, especially at a local level. Under Brazil's electoral laws, candidates can put a nickname on the ballot rather than their real names. (The President himself is one of them; "Lula" was a childhood nickname he formally added to his given name in the 1980s.) This year, six candidates nicknamed themselves after Barack Obama, three went by the moniker bin Laden, and another 225 incorporated Lula into their name. In some parts of the country, ballot papers included such bizarre options as King of the Cuckolds, Christ of Jerusalem and Kung Fu Fatty.

What they actually do once in power is also increasingly questionable, according to reports released by Transparency Brasil, an anti-corruption group that studied local legislatures. Some 93% of the bills passed by the Rio de Janeiro city council are "irrelevant" according to the reports. i.e. they have no real impact on daily life. In Sao Paulo the figure is 91% and in Porto Alegre it's 88%.

Even more shockingly, one in four candidates running for mayor or city council had not completed primary school, and in some states such as Sao Paulo more than one in five had been investigated by police, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

In spite of this almost cartoon element to many races, the same themes recurred across the country. Health care and roads were the two issues cited in almost every race, with big city residents also clamoring for improvements in policing and security, public transport, and education.

But with so few responsible candidates to choose from and life going well for most Brazilians, the deciding factor for many may have been continuity, which was good news for Lula and his many surrogates. "Many people are behind Lula and his coalition as their lives have improved," said Maria de Socorro, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo. "Also, the opposition doesn't have a coherent or consistent program to offer against what we have in power today and that is evident at state and municipal level too."

Still, the fact that Lula's candidates couldn't close the deal in such major races as Sao Paulo suggests that the President's coattails may not have been as long as many of his supporters had expected.

See TIME's pictures of the week here.