Brazil's President Silva Virtually Assured of Re-Election

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva returned to the gritty suburb where he campaigned as a radical leftist for years before winning Brazil's presidency — this time as a popular centrist who stabilized the economy, beat inflation and brought millions out of poverty without raising taxes.

"Four years later, I am here to say that we managed to prove wrong those who bet against our success," Silva said on Thursday before a crowd of about 5,000 flag-waving supporters, listing his government's accomplishments on employment, poverty reduction, foreign investment and exports.

Silva is virtually assured of victory Sunday, despite repeated allegations of political dirty tricks that forced him to fire his campaign manager and prompted arrest warrants this week for some of his top remaining advisers.

He snubbed all major opponents by refusing to attend a Rio de Janeiro televised debate with them Thursday night on the grounds that it was a set up against him. The other three candidates who went on TV attacked him fiercely on the charges of corruption that plagued his government the past two years.

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But there were no indications that Silva had been significantly hurt. All polls during the week showed him winning with more than 50 percent of the vote over all his rivals.

The one-time lathe operator became Brazil's first elected leftist president four years ago but almost immediately rejected that label, courting bankers, businessmen and other power brokers he once antagonized as a firebrand union leader.

Wrapping up his re-election campaign Thursday, Silva left an empty chair to represent him at the final candidates' debate. With polls showing him comfortably ahead of former Sao Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin, to his political right, and Sen. Heloisa Helena, to the left, Silva appeared confident of his hold on the vast center of Latin America's largest country.

Silva's absence made for a one-sided debate, with rival candidates all choosing to attack the president over the corruption charges and little discussion of issues.

"He has the obligation to descend from his throne of corruption, arrogance and political cowardice. He isn't here because he does not have the moral authority to confront me," said Helena, who was expelled from Silva's Workers' Party because of disagreements over Silva's tack to the right.

Alckmin, the second-place candidate, called Silva's absence at the debate "a disrespect to the voter."

At several points during the debate, the opposing candidates took the opportunity to address question's to his empty chair.

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In a letter to debate host TV Globo, Silva explained that opponents were no longer debating issues but are engaged in "gratuitous attacks and personal aggressions."

Silva's political metamorphosis began after his first three failed attempts at becoming president.

As an opposition leader, he struck a tone of Third-World defiance, urging Brazil to renege on its foreign debt and branding the International Monetary Fund as the enemy.

But as president, he restrained public spending, beat inflation by keeping interest rates high and generated enough budget surpluses to pay off the entire US$15 billion Brazil owed to the fund in a single installment.

He even went after his old comrades in the leftist Workers Party, known by its Brazilian initials PT, which he had founded to oppose the 1964-85 military regime. Half a dozen leftist congressmen were expelled when they objected to his reforms of the chronically bleeding pension system.

Silva's support among the lower classes has held tight thanks to programs such as Zero Hunger, which distributes US$325 million a month to 45 million of the country's 187 million people, as long as families keep their children in school.

"One day I ran into a comrade who was going to eat filet mignon and he told me this is the first time I have eaten this," Silva said Thursday at his final campaign rally. "And we are going to work so that everyone can eat filet mignon everyday."

All parties and candidates put an end to their TV and radio campaigns on Friday, abiding to the law that forbids public publicity and advertising.

About 126 million Brazilians are scheduled to vote Sunday to elect President, state governors and national and state legislators.