RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) – Facing a surprisingly rough campaign, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has revived the populist rhetoric he had largely shed since taking office. Fiery speeches contrasting the lives of Brazil’s poor with the wealthy elite have left many Brazilians wondering whether he would push the country to the left if he wins a second four-year term in today’s runoff election.

Silva, a former union firebrand and Brazil’s first working-class president, faced similar fears four years ago, but calmed them by adhering to market-friendly, pro-business policies that won praise even from conservatives.

But with his administration engulfed in corruption scandals, Silva has returned to his traditional base – the poor – rallying them with claims that his opponent, Geraldo Alckmin, would sell off cherished state assets and eliminate popular programs such as Family Allowance, which gives needy families monthly subsidies.

“The rich don’t need the Brazilian state. The ones who need it are the poor people of this country,” Silva said at rally on Sao Paulo’s poor east side. “The poor are the ones who need public universities because the rich can pay – or even study in Paris.”

While few believe Silva would adopt the radical populism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, they worry that he could entrench divisions in Brazil, which has one of the world’s widest gaps between rich and poor.

“It’s very easy to mobilize the poor. What’s hard is to demobilize them after the election,” said Bolivar Lamounier, director of the Augurium political consulting firm. “I’m afraid if he wins a second term, which looks likely, he will be tempted to take an authoritarian turn.”

According to a poll released Thursday, Silva was leading Alckmin 63 percent to 37 percent – even better than his 2002 victory of 61 percent to 39 percent over Jose Serra. The poll interviewed 2,000 voters and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

In the first round on Oct. 1, Silva fell just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Polls had predicted he would win outright but then news media ran photos of $770,000 in cash that members of his party allegedly planned to spend on purchasing an incriminating file about Alckmin and his allies.

Although Silva was never personally implicated, the expose reinforced suspicions of government corruption – suspicions driven home by Alckmin in his campaign speeches.

It was then that Silva stepped up the class-driven rhetoric.

He called Alckmin a tool of the rich and out of touch with the common man, while his allies painted a corruption scandal enveloping Silva’s party as an elitist-driven conspiracy.

“The raw and naked truth is that, in the elite’s political program … the poor have not been included,” Silva said at a Sao Paulo rally. “During elections the poor are worth more than bankers, but after the elections the poor are not even invited in for coffee.”

The first-round vote split the nation along geographic lines, with Silva winning handily in Brazil’s poor north while Alckmin took the industrialized south, including Sao Paulo, the state he served as governor.

In the second round, Silva counterattacked with an appeal to national pride, claiming that Alckmin would privatize government-run companies that are sacred cows to many Brazilians – oil giant Petrobras, Banco do Brasil, the national post office.

Alckmin called the president a “liar” to his face during their first debate – but Silva hammered away at the theme, and analysts say many of Brazil’s 125 million voters believed him.

“It’s not very difficult with the low level of education in Brazil to motivate this prejudice,” Lamounier said. “It was very hard to carry out privatization in Brazil, and while it a made good business sense, when poor people got their phone bills or light bills they just saw that things cost a lot.”

Alckmin has played on fears that Silva, like Chavez, could rewrite the constitution to give the poor more power. Silva has denied any attempt to split the country along class lines.

His socialist fire has already inflamed prejudices among upper-class Brazilians.

“If he’s elected I hope he gets impeached during his first days in office,” said Remo Dalla Zanna, a 67-year-old economist. “He’s not the kind of person I want governing my country. I don’t want a crude and ignorant union leader. No one I know is going to vote for him.”

The poor majority, in large part, remains Silva’s devout power base.

“With Lula, things have gotten much better for the poor,” said Celsinha Coqueiro de Sousa, a 52-year-old maid, “and I hope they will get even better.”


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