Brazil's leader forced into run-off election

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The Independent US

Brazil's leftist president faces a run-off for a second term after voters denied him an outright victory amid last-minute allegations that his party engaged in a scheme of electoral corruption and dirty tricks.

The 29 October run-off was announced late last night by election authorities after 99 percent of the vote had been counted, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva getting 48.7 percent compared to 41.6 percent for the center-right Geraldo Alckmin, Sao Paulo state's former governor.

It was a stunning setback for Silva, less than a week after polls predicted he would trounce Alckmin with 59 percent of the vote — far more than the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win the contest in the first round.

A beaming Alckmin emerged from his apartment in Sao Paulo shortly after midnight Monday to thank Brazilians "who rooted and voted for me."

"I'm heading to the second round with a great chance of winning the election," Alckmin told reporters.

Although Silva said earlier Sunday he had been confident of a first-round victory, his campaign manager, Marco Aurelio Garcia, said the president and his campaign staff "always prepared ourselves for a two-round election."

"We came up just short," added Tarso Genro, Silva's top political adviser.

Silva saw his once-commanding lead plummet on the eve of the vote as his Workers' Party was battered by allegations that party officials tried to pay US$770,000 for a mysterious dossier containing documents, photos and DVDS apparently linking Sao Paulo gubernatorial candidate Jose Serra to graft when he was health minister between 1998 and 2002.

Major newspapers ran front-page photos over the weekend showing piles of money allegedly meant to buy information showing claims linking Serra to graft.

Six members of Lula's party, including an old friend who ran his personal security detail, face arrest warrants for their alleged roles in efforts to buy the damaging information and Silva fired his campaign manager days before the election. The president has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing.

Serra belongs to Alckmin's party and lost the presidency to Silva in 2002 but won the race Sunday night to become Sao Paulo state governor, handily beating the Workers' Party candidate.

Silva's party claimed that Alckmin's supporters were involved in leaking the photos to the media, and filed a complaint Sunday with a judge demanding that Alckmin's candidacy be declared invalid. The judge said he would consider the case. Alckmin's campaign has denied involvement.

Silva's party has also being dogged by a campaign financing scandal and a bribes-for-votes scheme in which the government allegedly paid legislators for support in Congress. Silva wasn't directly implicated, but some of his top aides were forced to resign.

Alckmin, of the Social Democracy Party, voted Sunday in Sao Paulo's upscale neighborhood of Morumbi.

While Silva was also criticized for failing to appear in a presidential debate last Thursday night, the corruption allegations were a deciding factor for many voters.

"I'm not going to tell you who I voted for, because the vote is secret," said Adelaide Venissato, a 53-year-old woman who owns a clothing store. "But I will tell you who I didn't vote for. I didn't vote for Lula. We expected so much and we got very little in terms of security and clean government."

But others seemed willing to overlook the corruption allegations because they feel their lives have gotten better during Silva's four years in office. He has brought a stable economy and social programs that have lifted millions out of poverty.

"I voted for Lula because he worried about workers and the poor," said Waldo Lima Mendonca, a 49-year-old construction worker. "And the best president for a worker is one who used to be a worker."

Silva's efforts to reduce poverty played well in the slums of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

"Zero Hunger," his expanded food-stamp-like program, guarantees about US$30 (¤24) a month to virtually all poor families that vaccinate their children and keep them in school. It distributes US$325 million (¤260 million) a month to 45 million of Brazil's 187 million citizens. The program has helped millions of Brazilians out of poverty, studies show.

More than 126 million Brazilians voted in the election for the president, governors for all 26 states and the federal district, all 513 federal deputies of the lower house and 27 of the 81 Senate seats.

Voting is mandatory in Brazil and those who fail to justify their absence both within Brazil and abroad may be fined.

A poor farmer's son who became a fiery union leader and was later elected as Brazil's first leftist president, Silva surprised many by governing as a moderate once taking office. His deft handling of the economy won him backing on Wall Street and in Brazil's shantytowns. His second-term priorities include reforming the tax and labor rules.

Silva's change in style didn't mean embracing the politics of Washington. He clashed head-on with President Bush over a U.S. proposal to create a continental free-trade area, having termed it a U.S. scheme to "annex" Latin America. Largely because of Brazil's opposition, the free-trade area never took off.