Brazil's leftist president re-elected in landslide

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was re-elected in a landslide last night as Brazilians rewarded their first working class leader for helping ease grinding poverty and improving the economy of Latin America's largest nation.

The leftist former union leader, who had the support of tens of millions of poor voters, easily topped center-right rival Geraldo Alckmin, whose tepid campaign style and robotic imagine failed to win over ordinary Brazilians.

Silva had 61 percent support compared to 39 percent for Alckmin, Sao Paulo state's former governor, with 99 percent of the votes counted. Election officials declared Silva the winner.

"We're going to do a lot better in my second term than we did in the first," Silva told cheering supporters in a Sao Paulo hotel. "The foundation is in place, and now we have to get to work."

Beaming as he wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with "It's Brazil's Victory" in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, Silva promised to boost growth and reduce inequality to put the country on track to reach the ranks of developed nations.

Silva's win came after Alckmin made a surprisingly strong showing in a first round of voting on Oct. 1, getting enough votes to prevent Silva from winning outright and forcing Sunday's runoff. Alckmin's first round surge in support came as Silva's Workers' Party was pounded by allegations of corruption, vote-buying and illegal campaign financing.

But Brazil's first elected leftist president rebounded Sunday with the help of poor voters who have benefited handsomely over the past three years as Silva increased social spending without raising taxes.

Alckmin hit the corruption allegations hard again, but to less effect this time around.

While Silva came to power four years ago by employing strong leftist rhetoric, he ended up governing as a centrist and employed conservative economic policy in his first term. He is considered more moderate than South American leftist leaders like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and analysts said Silva probably won't change much in his second term.

Silva's economic policy "should remain more or less in the same line as before, but Silva will have to implement policies to increase growth and decrease unemployment," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.

After voting at a school in the industrial Sao Paulo suburb of Sao Bernardo do Campo where he gained fame as a union leader opposing Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship, Silva declared he would work harder in a second term to ease Brazil's vast divide between rich and poor and improve education.

The push, he said, would help Brazil "take a leap in quality in the world of politics, economics and business."

Nearly 126 million Brazilians voted in Sunday's runoff elections for president and for governor in 10 of Brazil's 27 states where elections were not decided in the first round.

Alckmin didn't immediately comment on the outcome, though Silva and an aide said he made a phone call to congratulate the president on his victory.

Earlier Sunday, Alckmin voted in Sao Paulo's upscale Morumbi district accompanied by former-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the state's governor-elect Jose Serra, who lost to Silva in the 2002 presidential elections.

Silva's campaign has been dogged by a scandal in which the news media ran photos of US$770,000 (¤607,000) in cash that members of his Workers Party allegedly planned to spend on purchasing an incriminating file about Alckmin and his allies.

The charges followed a string of corruption allegations against Silva's leftist Workers' Party. While Silva was never personally implicated, the exposes reinforced suspicions of government corruption - suspicions stressed by Alckmin in his campaign speeches.

Cardoso, who was president for eight years prior to Silva, continued to hammer at the allegations against Silva's party, known here at the PT.

"The PT can't cover up the crimes, Brazil has to investigate," Cardoso said. "Brazil is tired of impunity."

Still, Alckmin failed to make the corruption charges stick to Silva.

Instead, Silva battered his opponent with accusations that the former governor of Brazil's richest state would privatize cherished state industries and end the popular Family Allowance program that provides monthly payouts to 11 million poor families as long as they keep their children in school and get them vaccinated.

While Alckmin repeatedly said he would continue the program, analysts say it helped lift millions out of poverty and translated into guaranteed votes for Silva.

Silva also managed to reduce Brazil's notoriously high inflation through high interest rates, and prices of staples like rice and beans even dropped.

Alckmin criticized Brazilian growth as lackluster compared to the rest of Latin America, but Aloisio Pisco, a 36-year-old doorman, said Silva's handling of the economy earned him the right to a second term.

"Lula, he's the best," Pisco said. "He's created jobs and prices are cheaper."