LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Brazilians vote today in the second and final round of their presidential election. Polls leading up the balloting show incumbent Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva winning with ease. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Rio de Janeiro, a particularly contentious campaign has exposed class divisions in the world's fifth most populous country.
JULIE MCCARTHY: If the 20 point lead that authoritative polls give Lula holds, it would represent a remarkable comeback. Four weeks ago a stunned President Lula failed to win outright reelection in the first round when his conservative rival, former Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, scored a surprisingly strong second place finish.
(Soundbite of cheering)
MCCARTHY: Geraldo Alckmin, an anesthesiologist, draws his support from the educated upper and middle classes, many of whom blame Lula for the fact Brazil's economy hasn't grown like China's. Lula stresses the stability of the economy under his leadership. And his most ardent backers, the country's millions of poor, tend to fix on the fact that the labor leader turned president has more in common with them than a wealthy doctor. Lula's won their allegiance with assistance programs that now reach 11 million poor families. Lula's core constituents are also more likely to give him latitude on questions of ethics, telling me repeatedly he didn't invent corruption.
Alckmin has tried to make the campaign a referendum on Lula's government's ethical lapses, which include slush funds and a vote buying scheme in congress last year. Alckmin supporter Sameer Ahme Silva(ph) sums up the disgust many voters feel at the corruption scandals lapping close to the president's door.
Ms. SAMEER SILVA (Alckmin Supporter): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Lula's totally unprepared. He's a liar and an opportunist, she says. In his walk through central Rio yesterday, Alckmin insisted that the electorate is hungering for a change in tone and ethics.
Mr. GERALDO ALCKMIN (Brazilian Presidential Candidate): (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: But polls suggest that corruption, while troubling to the electorate, has not resonated the way Alckmin had hoped. And Lula has also managed to reverse an impression of arrogance he earned when he failed to show up for televised debates in the first round. In the second round, Lula, who aids fear is prone to gaffes, held his own and is some cases swayed undecided voters. Ielton Claudio Danta(ph) says he was in doubt until he watched Friday night's debate.
Mr. IELTON DANTA: (Foreign language spoken)
MCCARTHY: Lula's sincerity and attitude came through. He concentrated on the state of the entire country, Danta said. Lula paced the floor Friday night, gathering thoughts as the two candidates fielding audience questions. There's an intensity about Lula that mixes with a homespun charm. It's the charisma his opponent lacks. Lula's accused Alckmin of wanting to privatize everything from the Amazon to the National Oil Company, something Alckmin vehemently denies. As for scandal, Lula says he's the first government that's allowed full investigation of corruption. Lula told the national audience he'll make no promises he cannot keep, but will continue improving education, nutrition and inclusion.
President LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA (Brazil): (Through translator) Today Brazil is a country where street cleaners can organize themselves into a co-op and demand their rights, where street people know that they will not be massacred. We must work to overcome prejudice against them and anyone else.
MCCARTHY: Lula himself has accused Brazil's elite of being prejudiced against him for his lack of education and humble origins. It is the great mass of humble poor in this vast and diverse country who are expected to provide the bulk of votes that could win Lula another four years. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.
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