Lula protégé faces tough fight for outright victory in Brazil

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The candidate hand-picked by the outgoing Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed him appeared last night to have secured preliminary victory in national elections but early returns cast doubt on her achieving a wide enough margin to avoid a run-off vote in four weeks.

As the ballots were being counted all across Brazil – where voting is obligatory for all adults – there was growing uncertainty about a quick coronation of the ruling party candidate Dilma Rousseff, who has vowed to follow the economic policies of Mr Lula which have helped to ignite a protracted boom in Brazil.

A former leftist guerrilla who was imprisoned and tortured during Brazil's military dictatorship, Ms Rousseff needed 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a run-off. She had won 51 per cent of the vote, according to an exit poll conducted for Globo TV. But early returns from polling stations told a different tale.

With 72 per cent of the vote counted, Rousseff had 45 per cent of the vote compared to 34 per cent for her main rival Jose Serra. With those numbers, a second round of campaigning would open with a run-off on 31 October. Falling that far short of the 50 per cent mark would be something of an embarrassment for her and Mr Lula.

Ms Rousseff is battling to become Brazil's first female head of state. Mr Serra, meanwhile, is a former Governor of the State of Sao Paolo. He ran against Mr Lula unsuccessfully in 2002 and represents the opposition Social Democrats.

Ms Rousseff, 62, was propelled through the campaign largely by the popularity of the man she hopes to replace. Before plunging into the campaign as the ruling Workers Party candidate, she served both as Mr Lula's chief of staff and before that his energy minister. While an air of inevitability had grown around the Rousseff candidacy in recent weeks, last night's early returns suggest that her momentum may have been stalled somewhat by corruption allegations.

After two terms at the helm, Mr Lula was barred by Brazil's constitution from running for a third stint. With approval ratings touching 80 per cent, his endorsement of Ms Rousseff and his presence on the campaign trail always meant hard-slogging for Mr Serra almost from the start.

"I fought the good fight, and whoever does that comes out stronger," Ms Rousseff said after casting her vote. "Today is a day to be grateful because we have a great chance to win in the first round." Mr Lula said the elections demonstrated the "consolidation" of democracy in Brazil.

At her last rally appearance on Saturday, Ms Rousseff paid tribute to the achievements of Mr Lula, which have included lifting about 20 million Brazilians out of poverty and giving the country greater stature on the world stage. Ms Rousseff vowed to continue the project. Indeed, some economists predict that by the time Brazil hosts the Olympic Games in 2016 it will be the fifth largest economy in the world.

"We are only going to do it with the path that President Lula has opened," Ms Rousseff said at the Sao Paolo rally on Saturday evening. "I do not believe in a developed nation that has a part of its population marginalised.."

While Ms Rousseff would be expected to maintain most of Mr Lula's policies, filling his shoes in the minds of Brazilians may be more difficult. The backing he gave to her during the campaign was not necessarily matched by her own presence or charisma. "Historically, he will be considered one of the most important leaders of the 21st century," Peter Hakim, with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said of Mr Lula in the 1980s. "He will walk away as being one of the great Brazilian heroes."