Scandals scar da Silva

Brazil's president expected to face bruising campaign in runoff

October 03, 2006|By Patrick McDonnell | Patrick McDonnell,Los Angeles Times

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- President President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva faces a tough runoff election later this month after his stunning fall from prohibitive favorite to co-survivor in Sunday's presidential contest.

The charismatic da Silva, whose cries of "I was betrayed!" seemed to carry him relatively unscathed through sundry other corruption cases, could not overcome the dirty tricks scandal that broke two weeks before the election and left many Brazilians appalled.

"The image of a shot in the foot is the blandest one that occurs to illustrate what Lula's campaign did to the candidate Lula - putting in high risk a re-election that was certain," the columnist Fernando de Barros e Silva wrote in yesterday's Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

Experts were divided yesterday over whether da Silva, who is widely known at Lula, would even be the favorite in the Oct. 29 runoff against Geraldo Alckmin, 53, a conservative former Sao Paulo governor whose reputation as a bland technocrat invited the nickname Chuchu, for a nearly tasteless squash.

Most expect a bruising campaign, with more revelations from the scandals that have scarred da Silva's presidency and cost the jobs of as many as two dozen of his top aides.

"This could be the end of the Lula period," said David Fleischer, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. "I had called him our Teflon president, but I think his Teflon wore a little thin, and people more or less lost faith with him."

Alckmin offers a sharp contrast to da Silva, 60, whose rise from factory worker to labor leader and then president is the stuff of Latin American legend. Alckmin, a trained physician and professional politician, is relatively little known outside Sao Paulo.

Still, near-final results showed Alckmin trailed da Silva by only seven percentage points, garnering about 41.7 percent of the vote to da Silva's 48.7 percent. Alckmin also goes into the runoff with clear momentum.

This time around, da Silva aides have vowed their man would not skip any televised debate, as he did in the last campaign. The move prompted criticism from many that da Silva had grown aloof and out of touch.

Experts say the president is likely to mount a more aggressive campaign centered on his strengths - his populist appeal to a broad swath of Brazilians and his government's reputation for fiscal stability despite its leftist origins.

In the runoff campaign, Alckmin seems likely to keep pressing away at the integrity theme that dented da Silva's reputation.

The president has weathered a series of exotically named scandals, but the so-called "dossier" affair appeared to tip the patience of many voters over the edge.

Last month, operatives of his Workers' Party were apparently ensnared in a scheme to buy a dossier that sellers promised would link Alckmin's party to a kickback scheme known as the "bloodsuckers" scandal. Allegedly peddling the dossier for about $700,000 was a principal in the "bloodsuckers" case, which involved the sale of over-priced ambulances to local governments. Alckmin and his party associates have denied any wrongdoing.

The dossier affair touched a number of close da Silva aides, including his campaign coordinator and a longtime bodyguard.

Previous scandals, including an alleged kickback scheme known as the "big monthly" - after alleged monthly kickbacks - have cost the jobs of other top da Silva aides, including Jose Dirceu, the president's former Cabinet chief, and former Finance Minister Antonio Palocci.

The drumbeat of scandals even appeared to sap the patience of da Silva's base, the poor and working class.

"The last few years were a big deception, scandal after scandal," said Otacilio Silva, 33, a doorman here who voted for da Silva four years ago, but not on Sunday. "We had to show our discontent."

Patrick McDonnell writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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