Brazil's Silva Likely to Win Re-Election
Sunday, September 24, 2006; 11:51 AM
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Four years ago as presidential candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva struck fear into the heart of Brazil's business community with the fiery rhetoric of his days as a leftist union boss.
Today, as he seeks re-election Oct. 1, he is widely seen as a moderate option for a Latin America caught between declining U.S. influence and rising Venezuelan radicalism.
The man known to all as Lula has won worldwide praise for bringing gradual benefits to the poor in one of the world's most economically unequal nations _ without resorting to radical measures and by marrying a left-leaning party to free-market ideas.
Yet even though he is far ahead in the polls, his presidency is being rocked by a corruption scandal that could conceivably unseat him. It's a distant prospect, but an ironic turn of events, given that it was his Workers Party's clean-hands reputation that helped him become Brazil's first elected leftist president.
Under Silva, more than 6 million of Brazil's 185 million people have gone from extreme poverty to the middle class, according to a study by the respected Datafolha Institute.
Social programs such as "Zero Hunger," which funnels $325 million a month to 45 million Brazilians, are considered the world's biggest income transfer to the poor _ and they are the reason his support among the lower classes has withstood a landslide of corruption charges against members of his party and government.
Yet he has accomplished it without soaking the rich or hurting the economy. His election in 2002 was considered the high point of a left-wing surge in Latin America, away from free-market doctrines. But today, compared with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, he sometimes seems almost a conservative.
Silva is so popular that polls indicate he could win the election outright without the need for a runoff. His hard-core supporters are those he pledged to defend from his first day in office: the extremely poor, a class he rose from years ago.
"Lula da Silva represents the emergence of social sectors that the Latin American society had excluded," said Sergio Bitar, an aide to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, another recently elected socialist. "Silva's own origins and his emergence prove the possibility of a deeper democratization in Latin America, and that is something we should value and support."
A former shoeshine boy and grade-school dropout, Silva won the presidency on his fourth try as a legitimate champion of the left. But as president, blithely dismissing all evidence to the contrary, he declared he had never been a leftist.
"I am a lathe operator," he said in one of his rare interviews.
His mentor, a Dominican friar named Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo, said that during two years as Silva's special secretary, "I never heard the words socialism or socialist."