- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

SAO PAULO, Brazil Latin America's largest nation yesterday was set to elect its first leftist government in four decades, with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva commanding a wide lead over the ruling party's candidate in opinion polls.
Today's second-round vote pits Mr. Lula a bearded former union boss against Jose Serra, who left his job as health minister to post his candidacy. At stake is the stewardship over a resource-rich country whose economy is on the brink of recession, with soaring unemployment and staggering social inequalities.
A Lula victory could put the brakes on free-market reforms, give leftist movements in the hemisphere a boost and spell testier relations with the United States.
Mr. Lula, whose 57th birthday is on election day, was born to a poor farming family and left school after the fifth grade to sell peanuts and shine shoes on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. At 14, he began working in a factory, where he lost his left little finger in a machine press.
He began running for president in 1989 as the candidate of the Workers Party, urging landless farm workers to invade private property and calling for a default on Brazil's foreign debt, which now stands at $230 billion.
However, in the three subsequent presidential campaigns, Mr. Lula moderated his radical tone. Foreign investors now appear calm after jitters earlier this year. A 40 percent plunge this year in Brazil's currency caused by alarm over Mr. Lula's stance has begun reversing itself.
During a nationally televised debate Friday night, Mr. Serra who has only 36 percentage points in opinion polls compared with Mr. Lula's 64 tried to inject doubt on what his opponent's party stands for.
"I know the Workers' Party has changed its positions, but there are some people who still don't believe it," Mr. Serra said.
The concern that Mr. Lula remains a radical has resonated among some voters.
During the campaign, Mr. Lula attacked the free-market reforms of current President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who has ruled Brazil for two four-year terms and is barred from running for a third.
"Lula would rule Brazil with his true face: that of a radical unionist that scares investors from the country," said Jaime Batista Rocha, who was enjoying a beer in an outdoor refreshment stand in a lower-income neighborhood of Sao Paulo. Mr. Rocha, who said he would vote for Mr. Serra, also expressed concern about Mr. Lula's lack of administrative experience.
Still, Mr. Lula was so confident of victory that when Mr. Serra desperately appealed during the debate for his supporters to persuade their friends to vote for him, Mr. Lula retorted: "I can't ask my voters to do that, or we'll have more than 100 percent."
The Workers' Party was planning a victory celebration in Cinelandia square in downtown Rio de Janeiro. On Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo's main business avenue, Lula backers were setting up a stage for a victory party tonight. Mr. Lula has been setting up a "government transition team" that would be announced on Tuesday if he wins.

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