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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Brazil's Lula assailed for graft but gains in poll

BRASILIA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil's opposition candidates stepped up attacks on Thursday against President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva over corruption in an effort to trim the former union leader's solid lead in the presidential election race.

The heightened rhetoric follows a series of opinion polls this week, the latest on Thursday night, that showed Lula cruising to victory in the October 1 election over his nearest rival, former Sao Paulo state Gov. Geraldo Alckmin.

"The Lula government is a phone book of corruption," Alckmin said on Thursday in O Globo newspaper, referring to a series of political scandals ranging from embezzlement to illegal campaign funding involving politicians mostly from Lula's ruling coalition.

Allies had criticized Alckmin, who is favored by wealthier voters and the business community, for being too soft on Lula. But the latest ad in a TV campaign that began August 15 lists more than half a dozen Lula aides who were accused of fraud.

"So many ministers in the Lula government charged with corruption and Lula didn't know about anything? Lula doesn't deserve your vote," a woman says in the TV spot.

Firebrand Sen. Heloisa Helena, the third-placed candidate, said in her ad that opinion polls must be mistaken.

"I cannot believe that the honest Brazilian people would elect political bandits," she said.

Television and radio are vital to reach most of the 125 million registered voters in this continent-sized country.

In the latest poll by Vox Populi, Lula extended his lead over Alckmin, taking 50 percent of the vote. The previous Vox Populi poll three weeks ago had given him 45 percent.

Alckmin inched up 1 percentage point to 25 percent while Helena dropped 2 percentage points to 9 percent.

In line with other polls, the Vox Populi survey meant that Lula should secure a first-round victory by taking an absolute majority, avoiding a run-off second round.


Lula has bounced back from a scandal in which his Workers' Party was accused of using illicit funds to finance election campaigns and pay off legislators. His comeback was helped by popular social welfare programs, higher income, and his charismatic appeal.

The scandal forced top aides to resign and brought calls for his impeachment.

Lula, who promised more social spending on the poor in his manifesto released on Tuesday, focused his TV ads on brighter prospects for economic growth.

"Brazil will no longer be a country of the future but a power of the present," Lula said in his broadcast.

Early on Thursday, however, the government announced economic growth of only 0.5 percent in the second quarter, well below market expectations.

"This is the result of the incompetence of President Lula and his team," said senator Jorge Bornhausen, head of the right-wing Liberal Front Party, which is allied to the PSDB.

Lula hit back at a later meeting with teachers and human rights activists. Economic development had to be linked to social improvements, he said.

"There are insensitive people who get worked up over macroeconomic figures and who don't see that a nation is made up men, women, children and old folk living with a different understanding," he said.
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