The Resilient Senhor Lula
Allegations of kickbacks, a false dossier and reports of phone-tapping -- such is the scandal that has entered the fray during the final stretch of Brazil's presidential election.
But the reports may not make much difference for incumbent president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is favored to win reelection in this weekend's general election. Polls show that a corruption scandal implicating some of his closest aides is having little negative impact on his standing in the polls.
Lula attracted positive media coverage when he first won office in 2002 for his rise from metalworker to chief of state and his moderate brand of leftism. But coverage, which has grown more critical over the years, has turned especially sour since the arrest of two operatives in his Worker's Party (PT) on Sept. 15. The men were charged with seeking to purchase a dossier of fabricated information designed to incriminate the opposition Social Democratic Party in a corruption scam.
Marco Aurelio Mello, head of the country's electoral court, said the scandal is "much worse" than America's Watergate scandal "given the context, the accumulation of reports of scandals that we have had over the past few years."
One of Lula's aides rejected the comparison, according to O Estado de Sao Paulo (in Portuguese), a leading national daily. But a headline in the newspaper did echo the infamous Watergate scandal: "Crisis Advances On All The President's Men."
(Earlier this month, officials said they discovered that the telephones of three electoral court magistrates, including Mello, had been bugged, according to a Deutsche Presse Agentur report. But the court's director general told reporters there was "not even one lead" as to who planted the bugs, according to the Spanish news agency EFE.)
Lula's defense: He didn't know anything about the "nutty gang" hired by his campaign manager, whom he immediately fired.
"Many Brazilians are starting to wonder if there was anything ethical or revolutionary about Lula's first term in office," said The Guardian. "Allegations of corruption, bribes, tax evasion, intimidation and blackmail have blighted the Workers' Party (PT) for much of Lula's presidency, costing him his chief of staff, finance minister and, last week, his campaign manager."
"Lula's reelection next Sunday would indeed be academic" if it were not for the "dossier crisis," as the scandal is known, said Folha de S.Paulo, another leading newspaper. Now "the ground on which the PT campaign is walking is shaking -- and it will not stop quaking in the next six days."
One recent poll shows Lula's support has declined slightly to 49 percent of voters, compared to support for his chief rival, Geraldo Alckmin, which has risen to 31 percent.
If the press seems to be raking Lula over the coals for his alleged ties to corrupt characters, why do the polls not reflect a greater shift in public opinion?
Many voters evidently do not blame the president for his party's alleged ethical lapses. Seventy-five percent of people interviewed in a Datafolha opinion poll agreed that corruption is rampant in Brazil's government and 83 percent said that the president has some responsibility, according to Mercopress, an English-language news site covering South America.
But Lula retains the allegiance of many poor people, thanks to his common touch and his Bolsa Familia (family grant) program. The program provides poor families with cash benefits provided they keep their children in school and follow a prescribed course of vaccinations, according to the BBC.
"It's reaching 11 million families or 44 million people - that's 20% of the population of Brazil," said Tiago Cavalcanti, a Brazilian economist. "So it's huge, and it's going to be very difficult to beat Lula in this election."
But another BBC report found that the poorest of the poor -- landless peasants -- feel disappointed by Lula over land issues.
"I remember Lula saying that if he could deliver one thing as president it would be land reform," one activist said. "But four years on, land reform is still on the drawing board. He's done nothing."
Latin America Looks On
The Toronto Globe & Mail describes Lula as "the good leftist," comparing him favorably to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.
"He didn't come in on a vengeful agenda, as happened with leaders in Bolivia and Venezuela," said U.S. academic Eduardo Gamarra. "Populists often come to power at very crucial moments and they represent a tremendous opportunity to redress social grievances. They also come in with a leftist agenda and are facing the biggest challenges to make the left credible."
Ecuadoran columnist Gonzalo Ruiz Alvares sees Latin America trying to find a path between "the great empire [of the United States] led by the non-reflective G. Walker Bush and the histrionic, intolerant bossism of Chavez."
"It is therefore important that we build a new axis in which chiefs of state like Lula -- who may well be tired of having Chavez steal the show -- cautious, like the moderate Socialist [Michelle] Bachelet [in Chile] or the Social Democrat Allan Garcia [in Peru], who was the victim of Chavez's attacks, will decide to adopt a sensible, equidistant posture that will contemplate good relations with the United States and, by the way, the countries of the 'chapista' axis [Venezuela and Bolivia], who do not march to the drum beat set by others," he wrote in El Comercio (in Spanish).
Clovis Rossi, a columnist for Folha de S.Paulo, says the election has not ignited strong passions because Lula's platform differs little from Alckmin's.
"Except for barely practical political rhetoric from leaders like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, there is nothing new in the world's electoral marketplace that differs very much from what is usually called neo-liberalism or the Washington Consensus. In other words, there is no longer a battle between different projects in any modern country, no left-right confrontation (with their nuances) that might raise voters' emotions. Here, Brazil is no different than the United Kingdom, Spain or Uruguay." (Published in English by the Jordan Times).
Rossi says Lula is ahead in the polls because "he works on both sides of the counter."
Between 2003 and 2006, Lula's administration spent $242.7 billion to repay the holders of government bonds while allocating $13.8 billion to the Bolsa Familia program.
"This does not seem to be the best way to bring about a true redistribution of income, but has been enough to achieve two objectives: it keeps domestic and foreign investors satisfied. ... This strategy also wins the votes of the poorest segments of society, who make up the majority of Brazil's electorate and receive very little, but see the subsidies as 'better than nothing.'"
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