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Brazil Presidential Elections Could Result in Runoff

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Some 126 million Brazilians are expected to head to the polls today to elect a president and a new congress. Incumbent President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, has come under intense scrutiny for his Workers Party's alleged involvement in an attempt to smear the opposition. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Rio de Janeiro, in a country that is deeply divided along lines of class and income, two different opinions emerge about Lula and about political corruption, from which no party seems immune.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Members of Brazil's educated middle class have drifted away from Lula. His charisma and warm, gravelly voice have worn thin as thick layers of corruption have stuck to his Workers Party, a party that swept to power four years ago as Brazil's ethical choice.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

MCCARTHY: Rio's elite - intellectuals, professors and artists - gather at this mansion-turned-museum of a late grand dame of the city. They survey her priceless Persian rugs and Ming Dynasty china. On the orchid-lined terrace, the guests sip fruit-flavored vodka and talk about the election.

Henaldo Alivato(ph) says Lula has held down inflation, expanded exports, and helped the poor. But he's not casting his lot with the Labor leader turned president.

Mr. HENALDO ALIVATO: I don't vote for him because there was a lot of corruption. Power to the people, as he said. He didn't gave any power to the people.

MCCARTHY: The National Elections Tribunal is investigating whether Lula participated in his party's bid to buy a dossier of incriminating material for nearly $800,000 to slander the opposition. Pictures of the neatly stacked bills, now police evidence, appeared in the newspaper yesterday. Late pollings show that the scandal has helped Lula's main revival, Geraldo Alckmin, a little known, uninspired campaigner. Lula has denied taking part in Dossiergate and other corruption schemes that have stained his party.

Painter Louis Felipe Carnero de Mandonsos(ph) says apart from not believing Lula, he says he's violated the people's trust.

Mr. LOUIS FELIPE CARNERO DE MANDONSOS (Painter): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: People look at Lula and see deception, he says. Even people who didn't vote for him, like friends of mine, weren't worried when he won. They said, okay, he's in. He's from the working-class, let's see what he can do. But, Mandonsos says, I think it's the deception of not having done what he promised.

Just over the wall from this heavily guarded party lies Cantagalo, one of the scores of slums that crawl up Rio's steep hills. In this city, the rich and poor can live cheek by jowl. Steps from the entrance to the shantytown, locals belly up to a bar for a late afternoon beer, but a few interviews with the patrons turns the small, open-air establishment into an uproar.

The toothless bar owner, Hawkey(ph), is incensed at the support for Lula he overhears from his customers. He shouts that the president is a puppet dominated by the wealthy and is taking advantage of the poor. From the street, the fruit vendor weighs in yelling, Only Lula! Nursing a drink, Laza Nacimiento(ph) leans against the bar and says she couldn't agree more.

Ms. LAZA NACIMIENTO: (Through translator) With Lula, poor people are no longer hungry. For the first time I'm eating prime cuts of meat. I couldn't do that before. Now I'm able to fix up my house with what I earn. With Lula, I have something.

MCCARTHY: As for corruption, it doesn't seem to worry this impoverished neighborhood the way it does Brazil's newspaper-reading elite. As resident Andre Luiz put it, corruption is what you do in Brazil to survive. I have to pay off the police, he says, just so that they won't chase me off the street when I work - parking cars.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.