Lula Enjoys Healthy Lead in Brazil Presidential Race
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The president of Brazil is close to surviving a series of corruption scandals. One month before election day, he has built up a lead so large that he looks unbeatable. In surveys, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has more than 50 percent of the vote; the rest is divided among half a dozen challengers. A good economy maybe overcoming ethical concerns in South America's most populace nation.
NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Rio de Janeiro.
JULIE MCCARTHY reporting:
Corruption may have left some in Brazil's middle and upper classes disillusioned with President Lula, but among the country's estimated 38 million poor people it seems an abstraction not worth contemplating.
(Soundbite of a crowd noise)
MCCARTHY: Tanya Santos Silva(ph) stands on the sidelines as Lula's helicopter descends for a rally last Friday night in Bangue, an economically distressed town north of Rio.
Ms. TANYA SANTOS SILVA: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: She laughs and says Lula knew that his Workers' Party made under-the-table payments to members of Congress in exchange for their votes. Lula denied any knowledge of the scheme that claimed his top aides, sent his approval ratings plummeting, and even threatened impeachment a year ago. Despite the disgrace, Tanya still supports Lula and looks at me with an expression that says it's the economy, stupid.
Ms. SILVA: Who cares…(Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: The scandal doesn't bother me because everything I need in my life have gotten cheaper, she says. My life's better. And Tanya adds, the rich people don't vote for Lula, the poor people do.
But with banks earning record profits, Lula also expects the backing of many of Brazil's wealthy, questions of ethics aside. Millions like Tanya relish the fact the price of rice and beans is down. Rally-goer Sidney Rodriguez(ph) happily tells me, so is cement of the sort used in Brazil's shantytowns to make additions to small homes.
Lula mobilized people like Tanya and Sidney four years ago, pledging that the poor would be his priority if he, a labor leader of humble origins, became president. A banner across the stage reads, It's Lula again with the power of the people.
(Soundbite of crowd singing)
CROWD: Ole, ole, ole, ole, Lula, Lula.
MCCARTHY: Analysts say social programs that give tens of millions of poor Brazilians a small but direct transfer of income are the reason for Lula's consolidated standing in the polls. He's promising to extend entitlements in a second term, employing not so subtle class distinctions.
President LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA (Brazil): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: You know those braces you see in the mouths of soap opera stars or the rich? He asks the crowd who cheers him on. Well, the poor are going to have the right to fix their teeth too, he says. Vowing to add dentists to their meager healthcare.
But Senator Heloisa Helena, Brazil's first female presidential candidate, challenges Lula's record on the poor. The dissenting senator was a stalwart in Lula's Workers' Party before she was thrown out for saying Lula had abandoned the party's principles. Helena claims that three-quarters of Brazil's youth are idle - no jobs, no schooling.
Senator HELOISA HELENA (Presidential Candidate, Brazil): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: The worker's party and the previous government must humbly accept their irresponsibility, she says. Adding, I hope President Lula gets down from his pedestal to debate the public security mess she says all the neglect has caused.
Prison gang-inspired attacks on police, businesses and banks have terrorized Sao Paulo this year, underscoring the dangers of Brazil's big cities. But the issue of public security that analyst Domicio Proenca(ph) expects would generate an outcry in the U.S. has not yet infused this race.
Mr. DOMICIO PROENCA (Brazilian Analyst): Should that have ever happened in the United States, everybody would be held accountable; from the guy in front of the store who didn't push 911 when the bombs started to go off to the president of United States. In Brazil, no one is accountable.
MCCARTHY: Proenca says Lula avoids accountability by largely keeping quiet on the subject of security.
Mr. PROENCA: Why should a president who's certain to be re-elected, if things go as they are, change things as they are by addressing such an explosive issue?
MCCARTHY: Standing above the fray has proven useful. Lula's opponents can do little more than chip away at him. His closest competitor, Geraldo Alckmin, barely tops 20 percent. It's been a lackluster campaign, not that the former Sao Paulo governor's appeal for lower taxes and higher ethical standards isn't compelling.
Mr. GERALDO ALCKMIN (Presidential Candidate, Brazil): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: One hundred million people don't have sewers. Thirty million people don't have running water, Alckmin says. The roads are full of potholes. This, he says, while the government takes almost 40 percent in taxes. There is something wrong, he says.
If not substance, style has hindered Lula's opponents. No one in Brazil's presidential stump has more charisma or more practice than Lula. He ran four times before he became president. This is his fifth bid.
Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.
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