Brazilians, undecided, head to the polls today

Working-class candidate has lead for presidency

October 06, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Even after all the speechmaking, campaigning, television advertising and debates, nearly a quarter of the electorate still has not made up its mind whom it wants as president.

But today, Brazil's 115 million voters will finally have to decide whether they want to steer their country leftward in what everyone here recognizes as a watershed presidential election.

From the start, the front-runner in the race has been Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the left-wing Workers' Party, who polls say is favored by 48 percent of voters. If elected, da Silva, 56, a former labor leader and lathe operator who has never held executive office, would be the first working-class president in the history of Latin America's largest nation.

Da Silva has run for president three times before and has never won more than a quarter of the vote in first-round balloting. But the Brazilian economy has stalled in recent years, and his promises of "more resources to generate more jobs, production and wealth" have won over millions of voters who in the past have been suspicious of his socialist origins.

Opinion polls taken after a bruising television debate among the four main candidates Thursday night showed da Silva holding steady, just short of the absolute majority he needs to avoid a runoff on Oct. 27. Support for his closest rival, Jose Serra of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party, rose slightly, but Serra is still running more than 25 points behind.

Political analysts suggested that the sudden halt in da Silva's rise in the polls stemmed from slips in the debate that renewed questions about his readiness for high office. He confused an unpopular gasoline tax with a government agency, and in answer to a question about racial quotas he said he favored the use of "scientific" criteria to determine who is black.

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