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Brazil election: Lula's legacy set to propel Dilma Rousseff to victory

As voters go to polls for the Brazil election today, support from popular outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is expected to propel candidate Dilma Rousseff to victory.

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The global economic crisis caused only ripples here. Jobs disappeared and sales dropped, but Brazil did not suffer the home repossessions, failing businesses, and redundancies that demoralized much of Europe and North America. The economy is expected to grow 7 percent this year.

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Why didn't Lula do more?

But amid such incredible growth, critics question why Lula did not seize the moment to implement more reforms. Brazil's education standards remain pitifully low, corruption is endemic, and violent crime remains unacceptably high. Moreover, Lula failed to implement pressing tax, social security, labor, and union reforms.

"Lula has an 80 percent approval rating but he hasn't used that mandate to make tough decisions and push through the necessary reforms," says Oliver Stuenkel, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of São Paulo. "He's missed a great opportunity."

He's also been lucky. Brazil, with its abundant commodities, has become the world's No. 1 producer or exporter of beef, chicken, coffee, soybeans, sugar, and iron ore. Oil, too, has recently emerged as a major source of jobs and income. The sector got a huge boost in 2007 with three major discoveries off the Atlantic coast. The presalt fields, so named because they are found under more than 5,000 meters of sea, rock, and salt deposits, contain at least 12 billion and perhaps as much as 50 billion barrels of oil.

Next steps

All that has given Brazil a more prominent role in world affairs and Lula has seized on it. Brazil's troops have anchored peacekeeping efforts in Haiti, negotiators have been influential in climate and trade talks, and diplomats have sought to broker peace deals in Honduras, Iran, and between feuding Colombia and Venezuela. As if to crown its arrival on the world stage, Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

A hero at home and revered abroad for his work slashing income inequality, Lula has said he may now take a position at an international body, help Africa, or advise Ms. Rousseff – a move sure to be welcomed by most Brazilians.

"The principal explanation that so many people want to maintain the status quo is that the economy is doing well," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst with CAC Political Consultancy. "It's like Clinton's slogan in 1992: It's the economy, stupid."