It is a sultry Friday night in Rio de Janeiro, and thousands of
Brazil's evangelical Protestants have come to this suburban plaza
for a political rally.
The main attraction is Marcelo Crivella, a fervent pastor and
candidate for Rio governor. But President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
is on stage with him sharing the adulation, and with Brazil's Oct. 1
presidential election fast approaching, Lula looks certain to remain
in the spotlight for at least four more years.
Out in the plaza, Lula voters wave flags. Vera Lucia Andrade says
she will vote for him because he has helped Brazil's poor. Gilson
Amorim says he will vote for him because he has been a good
president. And Fatima Gomes will vote for him because she can't
remember the names of any other candidates.
Taken together, those reasons explain why Lula appears set to be
reelected, in spite of a government that has been widely condemned
for institutionalizing corruption and has failing to keep most of
its promises to radically change Brazil.
"I think that what this election tells us is that people think
the government is on the right track, even though there are still
lots of problems," said Carlos Ranulfo de Melo, a political
scientist at the Minas Gerais Federal University and an author of
two books about Brazil's political parties. "People are not
enthusiastic about their decision [to back Lula], but no one wants
to risk changing the government while it is doing OK."
With less than two weeks to go until voting, Lula is about 24
percentage points ahead of his closest challenger, Geraldo Alckmin
of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Some polls even
show him winning the absolute majority that would help him avoid a
runoff election three weeks later.
Lula has won kudos for keeping the economy stable, but it has not
grown as fast as people had hoped. Brazil's 2.6-percent growth rate
under Lula is about half the average in South America. The main
reason for his commanding lead in the polls, according to both
political analysts and ordinary voters, is that Lula has given
generous handouts to the country's poor.
Lula took the existing Bolsa Escola program that paid families a
small stipend to keep their children in school and expanded it to
help poor families pay for food, gas, and other necessities.
Today, more than 11 million families - about 45 million people -
get money from the program, according to statistics from the Social
Development Ministry. The aid guarantees survival for millions of
people and is a key reason many are voting for Lula, analysts say.
"The PT wouldn't have been proud of the Bolsa Familia 10 years
ago because it's paternalistic," says Timothy Power, a lecturer at
Oxford University's Center for Brazilian Studies. "But it is
definitely going to win them the election. That and the fact that
the minimum wage has gone up by about 23 percent in real terms since
2003, which is pretty incredible. The poor are much better off."
Those handouts have encouraged the poor to overlook what many
middle-class Brazilians believe to be the shocking corruption of
Lula's administration. Lula's Workers' Party was implicated last
year in a cash-for-votes scandal that, experts say,
institutionalized longstanding graft.
Mr. Amorim, like many of those who plan to vote for Lula, said
that he believes Lula did not know about the scandals that plagued
his administration and led several senior members of his party to
resign. Lula has always denied knowing that his government gave
deputies cash for votes in Congress. …