Lula close to victory after year of scandals

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The Independent US

Brazil's charismatic leader, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is on the brink of cementing a remarkable political comeback and securing a second term in office - only a year after a series of scandals threatened to end his career.

As the world's fourth largest democracy prepares to vote tomorrow, polls suggest the man universally known simply as Lula is within a hair's breadth of winning an outright majority and avoiding a second round run-off.

He concluded his re-election campaign late on Thursday evening with a powerful piece of political showmanship - declining to participate in a televised debate with his rivals and instead making a surprise appearance at a boisterous rally for his Worker's Party (PT) in the industrial community of Sao Bernardo do Campo, an hour south of sprawling, choking Sao Paulo, where he received his political education as a union leader in the 1980s.

"I used to live in a street near by. I lived a quarter of my life in this neighbourhood," Lula told a crowd of flag-waving supporters as they roared in the dirty night air. "A lot of people used to show up at my house for a drink at the end of the day. I know you all remember the Caipirinhas [a traditional Brazilian cocktail] we made together."

As the crowd continued to cheer and sing - "Ole, Ole, Ola. Lula, Lula!" - he made a reference to the televised debate later that evening at which he would be represented by an empty chair. "There is nothing more important for me in my life than to be present at the last rally," he said. "There is no other place more important to be now than here."

The most recent polls put Lula on 49 points, with his nearest rival, the lacklustre Geraldo Alckmin of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, on 33 and Heloisa Helena, who heads the Solidarity and Freedom Party and represents an unusual mix of social conservatism and left-wing ideology, on 8. If Lula achieves the outright majority he needs to avoid a run-off vote it will represent an astonishing recovery by the 60-year-old who has been boosted by an addictive campaign song that proclaims, "Lula once more with the force of the people".

In the summer of last year it appeared his political career, which started by organising strikes to improve the lives of car workers, had been wrecked by a series of corruption scandals which involved many senior members of the PT. Even now, a quarter of Brazil's 594-member Congress is under investigation.

Lula's resurgence is based on a number of factors but none is more important than his cementing of the support of the poor with several social programmes - the most important of which, the Bolsa Familia, or Family Grant, gives money to poor families to keep their children in school.

Jose Pereira Placido, a street cleaner working outside Sao Paulo's Municipal Theatre on the afternoon of Lula's rally, is an example of the broader effect of this policy. Mr Placido, 28, originally from the impoverished, north-eastern Paraiba state, said he earned $190 (£100) a month and struggled by with his wife and four children in a favela, or slum, in central Sao Paulo. Because of Lula's programme, his monthly income had been boosted by $24 and Mr Placido had no doubts about who would receive his vote. "I believe Lula is the president who has done what others have never done before - helped the poor. Lula's government has paid attention to the poor," he said. "Lula has reduced the price of food."

But Lula is not without his critics, including those who had high hopes of him when, in 2002, he won a landslide victory to become Brazil's first left-wing leader in more than 40 years.Greenpeace's Amazon campaigner Paula Adario said: "Maybe he was originally concerned about the environment but the reality is that he not a green guy but a social guy and his main mandate is to create jobs for the people who are supporting him."

Lula has certainly done that but the 3.8 million new jobs created have still not met demand and unemployment stands at more than 10 per cent.

Of equal importance - because it has denied his opponents on the right an easy means of attack - Lula has achieved economic stability. While GDP per capita has grown annually by a modest 1.4 per cent for the past four years, inflation stands at around 3.2 per cent. Lula is considered a fiscally cautious President and he even paid off an IMF loan ahead of schedule.

Professor Arthur Ituassu, of the Catholic Pontifical University in Rio, said two key factors lay behind Lula's success. He had been very effective in putting distance between himself and the scandals and he had also spent money to help natural supporters. "He is a very clever politician," he added.