Brazil Presidential Elections Could Result in Runoff

Brazil holds its presidential election Sunday. The incumbent, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, holds the lead, but there have been charges of corruption that may result in a runoff with his main opponent, former state governor Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist Social Democracy Party.

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Some 126 million Brazilians are expected to head to the polls today to elect a president and a new congress. Incumbent President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, has come under intense scrutiny for his Workers Party's alleged involvement in an attempt to smear the opposition. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Rio de Janeiro, in a country that is deeply divided along lines of class and income, two different opinions emerge about Lula and about political corruption, from which no party seems immune.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Members of Brazil's educated middle class have drifted away from Lula. His charisma and warm, gravelly voice have worn thin as thick layers of corruption have stuck to his Workers Party, a party that swept to power four years ago as Brazil's ethical choice.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

MCCARTHY: Rio's elite - intellectuals, professors and artists - gather at this mansion-turned-museum of a late grand dame of the city. They survey her priceless Persian rugs and Ming Dynasty china. On the orchid-lined terrace, the guests sip fruit-flavored vodka and talk about the election.

Henaldo Alivato(ph) says Lula has held down inflation, expanded exports, and helped the poor. But he's not casting his lot with the Labor leader turned president.

Mr. HENALDO ALIVATO: I don't vote for him because there was a lot of corruption. Power to the people, as he said. He didn't gave any power to the people.

MCCARTHY: The National Elections Tribunal is investigating whether Lula participated in his party's bid to buy a dossier of incriminating material for nearly $800,000 to slander the opposition. Pictures of the neatly stacked bills, now police evidence, appeared in the newspaper yesterday. Late pollings show that the scandal has helped Lula's main revival, Geraldo Alckmin, a little known, uninspired campaigner. Lula has denied taking part in Dossiergate and other corruption schemes that have stained his party.

Painter Louis Felipe Carnero de Mandonsos(ph) says apart from not believing Lula, he says he's violated the people's trust.

Mr. LOUIS FELIPE CARNERO DE MANDONSOS (Painter): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: People look at Lula and see deception, he says. Even people who didn't vote for him, like friends of mine, weren't worried when he won. They said, okay, he's in. He's from the working-class, let's see what he can do. But, Mandonsos says, I think it's the deception of not having done what he promised.

Just over the wall from this heavily guarded party lies Cantagalo, one of the scores of slums that crawl up Rio's steep hills. In this city, the rich and poor can live cheek by jowl. Steps from the entrance to the shantytown, locals belly up to a bar for a late afternoon beer, but a few interviews with the patrons turns the small, open-air establishment into an uproar.

The toothless bar owner, Hawkey(ph), is incensed at the support for Lula he overhears from his customers. He shouts that the president is a puppet dominated by the wealthy and is taking advantage of the poor. From the street, the fruit vendor weighs in yelling, Only Lula! Nursing a drink, Laza Nacimiento(ph) leans against the bar and says she couldn't agree more.

Ms. LAZA NACIMIENTO: (Through translator) With Lula, poor people are no longer hungry. For the first time I'm eating prime cuts of meat. I couldn't do that before. Now I'm able to fix up my house with what I earn. With Lula, I have something.

MCCARTHY: As for corruption, it doesn't seem to worry this impoverished neighborhood the way it does Brazil's newspaper-reading elite. As resident Andre Luiz put it, corruption is what you do in Brazil to survive. I have to pay off the police, he says, just so that they won't chase me off the street when I work - parking cars.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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Beset with Challenges, Lula Steers to the Middle

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, pictured here saluting supporters and a rally, faces a re-election challenge in October. Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images
Map of Brazil i i

Brazil is a nation of contradictions -- by far the biggest nation in South America, with a very diverse racial makeup, tractless rain forests and sprawling mega-cities. Doug Beach hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Beach
Map of Brazil

Brazil is a nation of contradictions -- by far the biggest nation in South America, with a very diverse racial makeup, tractless rain forests and sprawling mega-cities.

Doug Beach
Brazilian soldiers patrol the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, March 2006.

Brazilian soldiers patrol the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro, March 2006. Increased lawlessness in the shantytowns has been met with retaliation killings many blame on the police. Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images
A police officer searches a van for members of a criminal gang blamed for a wave of attacks

A police officer searches a van for members of a criminal gang blamed for a wave of attacks on banks, police stations and buses that all but shut down Sao Paulo in May 2006. Robson Fernandjes/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Robson Fernandjes/AFP/Getty Images
Lula da Silva, Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez

Lula da Silva, right, and his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, shake hands as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez looks on during a meeting in May 2006 to discuss the economic impact of Bolivia's move to nationalize its hydrocarbon industry. Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images

Disillusionment with limited social progress and free-market reforms swept Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to power in 2002. Brazil's first working-class president, a favorite with Brazil's poorer voters, promised clean government and a fairer distribution of wealth.

Critics charge that, once in power, Lula did little more than follow the centrist policies of his predecessors even as his own party became swamped in scandal. Now the pragmatic "man in the middle" faces a challenge from his more ardently leftist ally Hugo Chavez in the international arena.

Lula's promised social reforms have been slow in coming. But Brazil is so fundamentally unequal that, for the poor, even modest advances are milestones. At a recent graduation ceremony for 2,000 adults who just learned how to read, Lula touted booming exports, five million more jobs and low inflation that stretches the value of the minimum wage.

He reaches his audience, many of them dependent on the minimum wage of approximately $150 dollars a month, with anecdotes that remind audiences in impoverished places that he is one of them. In return, they give their alliance and admiration to the simple lathe worker who beat the odds to become president.

But steering Brazil is a formidable task. The country itself is immense, and the World Bank says that one-fifth of the nation — about 38 million people — live on less than $2 a day.

The gap between rich and poor has slightly narrowed under Lula's administration, but the disparity remains huge. Brazil's richest 10 percent earns nearly half of the national income, while the poorest 20 percent account for less than 3 percent of earnings. As in the United States, economic inequality falls along racial lines — and Brazil's long legacy of slavery helps to perpetuate the injustice.

"This is a country that has a history of exclusion," says sociologist Julita Lem-Gruber. "[It's] divided between full citizens and second-, third- and no-class citizens."

Critics charge that Lula has betrayed the very poor who put him in office. Rather than focus on social spending, he paid off International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and produced budget surpluses. Former Ambassador to the United States Rubens Barbossa says Lula had no other choice:

"The Brazilian risk was too high. The market didn't trust him, and he had no alternative," he says. "[Lula] had to keep the same ... orthodox policies."

But Senator Christovan Buarque, Lula's former education minister, says that economic orthodoxy has come at the expense of human development.

Buarque, who is running for president against Lula this fall, says 22,000 public schools still have no bathrooms. Thirty percent of Brazilians are functionally illiterate, and half of all public schoolchildren cannot read by the time they reach fourth grade; just one-third of students complete high school.

To reverse Brazil's dramatic dropout rate, the government pays parents to keep their children in class. It's a small amount, from $20 to $40 a month, but it can be a lifeline for the poor. Political scientist David Fleischer says that under Lula, 11 million families now receive this "direct transfer of income."

Those small payments can translate into a potent political force.

"We're talking about 40 million voters, which is perhaps close to a third of Brazil's electorate," Fleishcher says. "That program has produced extremely strong support for Lula among the lower classes."

If the poor struggle for education and opportunity, they also struggle to find justice. The favelas, or slums, of Brazil's urban centers are breeding grounds of violence.

Residents are victimized not only by the criminal gangs who often control the favelas, but by police who have earned a reputation as trigger-happy enforcers of a legal system that is stacked against the poor. At least 6,000 people were murdered last year in Rio de Janeiro alone, and an additional 1,000 were killed by police.

Prison gangs in Sao Paulo state penitentiaries brought Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, to a standstill last May when they used cells phones in jail to order their foot soldiers on the outside to attack police stations.

The security situation may be worsening, but political analyst Domicio Proenca says it would be "plain silly" for Lula to address it head on. "Why should a president risk a certain re-election [this fall] by entering into something over which he did very little over three-and-half years?"

Foreign policy challenges are also putting pressure on the president. Critics say Lula has abdicated Brazil's traditional role as regional leader to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

"We are opening up the agenda for Chavez for a revolution that South America does not need," says international-relations professor Arthur Ituassu. "South America does not need any revolution — South America does need governments generating public benefits for the population."

Still, it is Lula, with his middle-of-the road course, who is poised for re-election later this fall.

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