Exit polls cast doubt on outright win for Brazilian President Lula

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Zuleide Zeferino da Silva had no doubts about who to vote for.

Standing in the ill-named Paradise City slum, a rabbit-warren of brick hovels and pathways awash with filthy water that is squeezed alongside one of Sao Paulo's wealthiest districts, the 32-year-old declared that President Lula da Silva was the only candidate who would receive her support.

Likewise, Nancy Assad, a PR agent, was equally adamant. Leaving a voting station yesterday morning with her husband, William, a gynaecologist, in the middle-class neighbourhood of Vila Magdalena, she said that she had voted for Lula's nearest rival, Geraldo Alckmin. "The last four years have not been good for Brazil. Everything you hear about [good] numbers is fabricated," she said.

Millions of Brazilians voted in the country's presidential election yesterday, as polls showed a last-minute tightening of the race. With 52 per cent of the ballots counted, Silva had 48 per cent of the vote compared to 43 per cent for the centre-right Sao Paulo state Governor, Geraldo Alckmin. Lula needs 50 per cent to win outright and so is likely to be forced into a run-off if he is to have a second term. A run-off against Mr Alckmin would be held on 29 October.

Brazil is among the world's most unequal societies: the income of its wealthiest 10 per cent is 68 times more than that of the poorest 10 per cent. By contrast, in the US ­ one of the most unequal societies in the developed world ­ the ratio is 16 to 1.

And while here in Brazil support for the candidates is not based entirely on class lines ­ there are, for instance, many middle-class leftists who back Lula and his Worker's Party (PT) ­ it is among the poor that his support is strongest. This support has been cemented by a number of social programmes he has introduced, most importantly the Bolsa Familia, which give money to poor families to keep their children in education.

On a visit to the Paradise City it emerged that not everyone was planning to vote for Lula but it seemed he would receive the support of most of its impoverished inhabitants, half of whom live without electricity.

Mrs da Silva, a house cleaner originally from northern Brazil, where Lula's support is nationally the strongest, said: "I get 30 reals [£7] extra a month from the Bolsa Familia but it's not because of that that I will vote for him ­ I have always thought he was the best option."

Supporters of Mr Alckmin argue that the former governor of Sao Paulo state and candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) is better qualified to lead the country than Lula. Marcello Bernardini, 49, an architect voting at Vila Magdalena, said of Mr Alckmin: "He is more serious. He is more prepared."

Lula, 60, voted in the industrial suburb of Sao Bernardo de Campo, where he first came to public attention in the early Eighties as a union leader. "This is a glorious moment for Brazil because the election consolidates the democratic process," he said after voting.

By contrast, Mr Alckmin, 53, voted in Sao Paulo's wealthy Morumbi district. He vowed "ethics will defeat corruption".

The issue of corruption has never been far from this electoral race. A year ago it appeared a series of corruption scandals that had engulfed the PT would sink Lula's chances of re-election. And just weeks before the election it emerged that six PT members, including a close friend of Lula's, could face arrest for allegedly trying to buy damaging information about his political opponents.

If the election goes to a second round, the outcome will be decided by the supporters of Ms Helena, a former nurse who combines left-wing ideology and conservative social values. She was fired from the PT two years ago after criticising what she believed had been a move to the centre by Lula, who had campaigned as a left-wing candidate.