Brazilian President Wins Second Term By Sizable Margin

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 30, 2006

RIO DE JANIERO, Oct. 29 -- Brazilians cast a vote of confidence for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Sunday, granting a landslide victory to the former union leader whose first term was marked by a significant reduction of poverty and by corruption scandals that implicated some of his closest aides.

Lula received about 60 percent of the votes, outpacing former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin by more than 20 points.

During the campaign, Lula cast himself as the champion of the country's poor, touting a 19 percent decrease in poverty rates, minimum wage increases and millions of new jobs. But he also had to defend himself against several corruption allegations, the most recent of which was an accusation that his campaign had paid for damaging information against his political opponents. That accusation dominated headlines before the first-round vote on Oct. 1, when Lula narrowly failed to win a majority, forcing Sunday's runoff against Alckmin.

During a victory speech Sunday night, Lula thanked voters for rejecting the allegations and credited a rising standard of living among the poor as a key to his victory.

"Above all, the people felt they were improving -- no one can be opposed to that idea," Lula said. "The people felt -- at their tables, on their plates and in their pockets -- their lives getting better."

Lula, 61, grew up in poverty, dropping out of school in the fifth grade and working as a shoeshine boy, peanut vendor and lathe operator. During the country's military dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s, he became a union leader and a prominent voice of opposition. He was elected president of the world's fifth-largest country in 2002, becoming a by-the-bootstraps symbol of success in a country where two-thirds of the population lives on less than $500 a month.

His first term's signature program extended welfare benefits to more than 11 million low-income families on the condition that their children attend school and get health checkups. Such programs have helped increase the spending power of the poorest tenth of the population by about 23 percent.

"During the first round, I didn't vote for Lula because of all of the corruption, but this time -- at the last minute -- I decided to vote for him," said Lucia Moraes de Souza, 42, a cashier in a market here. "He has done a lot to help the poor and the middle classes. Alckmin to me looks like he was born rich."

Alckmin, 54, a former doctor, had pinned much of his election hopes on the scandals, which began more than a year ago with congressional vote-buying evidence against Lula's political party. That scandal forced cabinet minister Jose Dirceu to resign. Lula's finance minister also stepped down after being accused of involvement in a kickback scheme for municipal contracts. Alckmin tried to cast himself as a counterpoint, adopting the slogan: "For a Decent Brazil."

"People have had enough of the scandals. They don't want to hear about them anymore," Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst in Sao Paulo, said before Sunday's balloting. "There has been little new evidence of wrongdoing, so very few people are paying attention to it."

Alckmin's promises of lower taxes and more rapid growth of the gross domestic product also failed to energize voters. That the economy grew by only about 2.5 percent last year -- one of the most sluggish rates in Latin America -- seemed less important to many voters than the lowered inflation and currency gains of the past four years. For many, Alckmin was simply the person to direct protest votes toward, a passive foil in an election completely defined by the charismatic but controversial Lula.

"This has nothing to do with Alckmin," said Gerson Costa, 37, a graphic designer who voted for Alckmin on Sunday. "It's a clear referendum on Lula. In 2002, I voted for Lula because I thought, 'This guy will be different.' I was wrong, and now I can't stand him."

During his first term, Lula approached foreign policy pragmatically, preferring to play the role of negotiator rather than firebrand. Lula has preserved free-market economic reforms implemented by his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and has tried to serve as a communicator able to maintain generally friendly relations with both Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and President Bush. On Sunday he said that he has tried to encourage regional trade alliances, citing his strong support of South America's Mercosur trading bloc as an example of his regional leadership.

Analysts said that in his second term, Lula will be pressured to enact major reforms of Brazil's large labor sector and enormous pension system, which many believe could prevent the country from reaching growth rates needed to sustain the poverty reduction measures Lula achieved during his first term.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company