Leading article: Slow progress, but in the right direction

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The Independent Online

The latest opinion polls show that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is comfortably ahead of his rivals in the Brazilian presidential election campaign. This means that, barring last minute surprises, the man known more commonly as Lula will be elected for a second term tomorrow as leader of the largest and most populous nation in South America.

When he won office four years ago, radical leftists around the world had high hopes for Lula. Here was the first Brazilian president from a poor background; a former union leader who had formed the first major socialist party in Brazil's history; someone who had challenged the authority of the International Monetary Fund in Brazil. He was expected to be a new Castro and stand up to the influence of the US in the region. Such expectations have been dashed. Lula has proved far more moderate in office than his rhetoric in opposition suggested he would be.

It is true that his election precipitated an impressive resurgence for leftist movements across South America. But it has been Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, rather than Lula, who has taken up the reins of regional leadership.

Yet the more important question is what Lula has delivered for the people of Brazil? Runaway inflation has been tamed through high interest rates. Brazil's foreign debts have been paid off. The country is now an attractive investment. Respectable economic growth, in conjunction with a number of new social welfare programmes, has raised some six million Brazilians out of poverty. Some may question whether progress has been delivered quickly enough, given the country's abundant natural resources, but there can be little doubt that Lula, unlike his predecessors, has moved Brazil in the right direction.

Brazil remains a troubled country. A series of scandals has revealed how corrupt political life remains. Even Lula himself is under investigation by the Brazilian courts. And there are horrific social problems in Brazil's cities. A "war" between criminal gangs and the police has resulted in hundreds of deaths in the past four months. Lula's administration has been disappointing on the environment too. The Amazon rainforest continues to be eroded by illegal logging and land cleared for soya cultivation.

But despite all this - and as Brazilian voters seem likely to conclude - Lula continues to represent the country's best opportunity to fulfil its extraordinary potential.