Drug lords, gang leaders and Western investors trembled as the erstwhile steelworker Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva headed for victory in tomorrow's presidential election in Brazil.
Troops are mobilised and ready to roll at the first hint of trouble in Latin America's most populous country, where chronic violence and anarchy fuelled by poverty and unemployment are a top worry for voters, and an economic meltdown the nightmare of investors worldwide. Drug barons paralysed the second city, Rio de Janeiro, last week, leaving businesses and bus stations, even Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, deserted.
The city's criminal underworld, better armed than the police, fears the burly former union boss and his left-wing Partido de Trabalho (Workers' Party or PT) might run them out of business should he win. The authorities are braced for a nationwide prison revolt on polling day co-ordinated by the so-called Red Command of jailed gang leaders.
Bankers and investors from America and Europe are also biting their nails, alarmed at the prospect that the man they demonised and undermined for decades as a revolutionary agitator might win outright tomorrow. Polls put Lula's support at 49 per cent. Even the London stock exchange apprehensively marked down companies exposed to Brazil.
One political commentator in the capital, Brasilia, said: "Lula is the best known name in Brazil after Coca-Cola." The comparison underlines Brazil's importance as Latin America's focus for international capital.
With Argentina brought near to catastrophe by the International Monetary Fund's free-market prescriptions, and Venezuela alienated by clumsy US attempts to derail its populist President, Hugo Chavez, Western companies with holdings in Brazil feel they can do little but wait and quiver at the prospect of life under Lula.
The economy is already so crippled by crisis and debt that many entrepreneurs reckon outright victory by Lula tomorrow would be preferable to a still more destabilising wait for a run-off in three weeks. Roberto Setubal, a powerful local banker, said: "He is pragmatic and will be more careful than the market expects. I would say that at this stage Brazil's business community is ready to back Lula."
When the international speculator George Soros warned Brazil that its currency would be under fire if Lula won, even the moderate President, Fernando Henriquez Cardoso, was so outraged that he rallied to Lula's defence and told Mr Soros to back off.
Yesterday's televised debate, which concluded the campaign, confirmed Lula as favourite of the four contenders. This man, who never received formal schooling, saw off supposedly more erudite opponents. When his nearest challenger, the moderate Jose Serra, lauded his experience, Lula shot back: "That experience you talk of so much has left Brazil almost bankrupt."
Lula, 57, is the only politician for decades to speak convincingly for Brazil's impoverished underclass of up to 50 million people, in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is the widest in Latin America. This is his fourth attempt at the presidency.
"I want to prove that a lathe operator can achieve what the Brazilian elite has been unable to do," he told a rally in Maua, a sprawling industrial suburb of Sao Paulo where he made his name as a militant leader of steelworkers in the 1970s and where, in 1980, he founded the Workers' Party.
"Brasil presente, Lula presidente," roared crowds of men and women, some in working overalls, many of them jobless, waving placards and scarlet banners. "We don't ask much," he says, "We only want the right to work, a home, schooling, culture and sport – little more than what's in the Bible, the Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ... I promise things will change if I become president."
Lula has softened his militancy over 30 years, dressing it in a suit and tie. His party is "more open and more representative" he says, promising to be president "of all Brazilians". Left-wing critics call him "Lula-lite", uneasy that his running mate is a millionaire textile magnate, Jose Alencar. Lula is said to have made many allies and no enemies during his campaign, which suggests that many opponents will jump ship. He has even sounded out entrepreneurs and academics as possible collaborators in a future government.
Francesc Relea is the correspondent for 'El Pais'.
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