RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – More than 125 million Brazilian voters are set to choose a new government today, and polls show they want more of the same, despite more than a year’s worth of political scandals.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva now appears likely to win re-election with a majority of the vote, avoiding a runoff with the second-place finisher. Half of the country’s 20 governors seeking re-election also appear headed for immediate victory, with six expected to go to runoffs.

For Valukyria Ribeiro, a cosmetics saleswoman from the central Brazilian town of Santa Maria, four more years of the same would be welcome. Many of her friends and family have seen their incomes rise, with the help of poverty aid from the federal government. Business in her dry, little town has also been improving.

“Really, Lula is governing for the people,” Ribeiro said. “A lot of people have seen their lives improve.”

The likely result is a remarkable one for a president who a year ago seemed on the verge of resignation when a bribes-for-votes scandal engulfed his party and government. If Lula wins, either outright or in a runoff, many believe he’ll be the kingmaker when the next president is selected in 2010; under Brazilian law, Lula cannot seek a third term.

“Lula has a popular leadership that is unique in Brazil, independent of political party,” said Newton Cardoso, the former governor of Minas Gerais and a Lula ally. “He will be a political force for the next 20 years.”

Still, many think the scandals have weakened Lula and his Workers’ Party enough that he’ll be unable to tackle some key issues and will be forced to share power.

Anti-corruption measures and changes to the country’s tax system, which eats up 40 percent of the gross domestic product, won’t go anywhere, many analysts said.

Stopping ballooning government spending also will be a long shot, said Christopher Garman, a Brazil expert with the U.S. consultancy the Eurasia Group. Mandatory government costs such as pensions and unemployment payments grew by 32 percent between 2004 and 2006.

“No one expects Lula to be able to do anything in the second mandate,” Garman said. “You have big challenges in Brazil, but the most that can be expected is for the government to make incremental moves.”

Lula’s top electoral challenger, former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, has argued the same point on the campaign trail, with little success. Two polls released Wednesday showed Alckmin trailing Lula by 16 percentage points, with the president winning 53 percent of the votes of those who’d already settled on a candidate.

“When you had four years, and you didn’t do anything, you obviously are not going to do anything more,” Alckmin said at a press conference this week. “The future government of (the Workers’ Party) is already over before it begins.”

But not everyone is writing off a second Lula government, especially if the president wins re-election without a runoff.

“If he wins in the first round, that will be a show of strength,” said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a political scientist with the research firm Brazilian Institute of Political Studies. “He will come in on top and can use that power.”

One thing is certain: The president is expected to expand the social aid programs that have helped him win the support of millions of poor Brazilians. Such measures, along with increases in the minimum wage and pensions, benefit nearly 60 million people, or about a third of the country.

The number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by 19 percent from 2003 to 2005, hitting its lowest level since 1992, according to a study by the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a business and law school.

“The great support for the Lula government over the past few years has been its economic policy,” de Castro Neves said. “This was the great conquest of the government.”

The president is also expected to continue the orthodox fiscal policies that have helped him win the support of many international investors. The former trade union leader and radical activist has surprised many by championing policies such as running budget surpluses and dutifully paying foreign debt.

A bigger economic question is the future of prices for Brazilian commodities such as soy and sugar, exports that have reached record levels over the past few years. Many analysts expect those prices to come down, which would hurt Brazil’s economy.

(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


ARCHIVE PHOTOS on MCT Direct (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LULA BRAZIL

GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): BRAZIL

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on MCT Direct (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): BRAZIL LULA

AP-NY-09-29-06 1905EDT

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