Brazil's three-time political bridesmaid appears finally ready to become a bride.
Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva, head of the center-left Workers' Party [PT] and runner-up in the 1989, 1994, and 1998 presidential elections, leads a field of four candidates heading into Sunday's poll. Surveys show him close to garnering the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff on Oct. 27.
Getting to this point has been a hard climb for the former shoeshine boy from the impoverished northeast. Because Mr. da Silva never finished secondary school, and lacks experience in public administration, many here still question his ability to manage the world's ninth-largest economy.
But should the man known as "Lula" win the top spot in a country that is flirting with economic disaster, observers say it will be a testimony to his dedication, his ability to evolve with the times, and a perceived honesty that many here now see as more important than his politics.
"[Lula] has learned from past failures, as has the Workers' Party," said Kenneth Maxwell, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations and one of the world's most respected experts on Brazil, in an op-ed piece in last week's Financial Times. "The PT has used the decade to modernize its ideology and move towards the political center. For 20 years, party members have been elected to state and local offices. They know that honest administration is more important than strident partisanship."
The experience the PT gained running five states and seven state capitals, including that of São Paulo, the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, has helped the party and Lula mount their most solid presidential campaign yet. More disciplined and moderate than ever before, Lula has won the support of business owners, church leaders, former political opponents, and even members of a military that jailed him during the country's dictatorship.
Though Brazil currently owes some $240 billion in public debt, gone are Lula's threats to default on the country's international debt and the promises to tax the super-rich. His once scruffy beard is trim, the old uniform of T-shirt and baseball cap has been replaced by tailored suits, and he has even had his teeth done. The former union leader who was once rough and rabid has become a politician so mellow that the Brazilian media have dubbed him "Lula peace and love."
Like any good hippy, Lula has done his best to make sure everyone is happy. He has tried to placate Wall Street by committing himself to fighting inflation, maintaining a budget surplus of 3.75 percent of the country's gross domestic product, and upholding the conditions of the International Monetary Fund loan that was agreed to recently. He even supports free trade as long as wealthier countries remove barriers to their markets.
At home, he remains focused on decreasing Brazil's deep inequality and has promised to create 10 million jobs, double the purchasing power of those earning minimum wage, and make life better for the nearly one-third of Brazil's 175 million people who live in poverty. And he has done it all while insisting that he has not changed as much as evolved.
"The changes that I have gone through are changes that Brazilian society has gone through," he replied when asked to compare the 21st-century Lula with the man who ran in previous elections. "The press has changed, owners of businesses have changed, culture has changed, the church has changed, political parties have changed, and, obviously, if I had not changed with them I would have been left behind."
If one thing has not changed since he first ran for the presidency in 1989, it is the focus of the campaign. Although opinion polls consistently show voters are most concerned about the lack of jobs and the increasing power of organized crime, like 13 years ago, inflation, debt, and a fragile currency are still the main topics of debate.
Few people trust Lula to run the economy with the same skill as incumbent President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Most voters say that Jose Serra, Mr. Cardoso's health minister and the man chosen by him to carry the party's standard in the election, is the best man for the job.
The problem for Mr. Serra is that his lack of charisma and charm carry more weight with voters than his undoubted competence.
Serra only scrambled back into the race a few weeks ago, thanks to a hard-hitting series of TV ads, and he will have to produce a political miracle if he is to turn things around and halt the Lula bandwagon.
One of the most interesting aspects of the race has been Serra's desire to distance himself from the Cardoso government.
Analysts say that with jobs hard to come by, the currency at an all-time low, Cardoso's inability to tackle corruption, and drug traffickers so powerful that they last week closed down large parts of Ipanema, Copacabana, and at least 40 other Rio de Janeiro neighborhoods, Serra and the other candidates want to disassociate themselves from a government that has failed to solve the everyday problems most Brazilians encounter.
Although Cardoso is personally respected and liked, many voters feel he has paid too much attention to fiscal issues and not enough effort to resolving Brazil's social problems.
"We have the curious combination of a very positive evaluation of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the clear demand for more changes," says Helio Jaguaribe, the dean of Rio's Institute of Political and Social studies and a personal friend of the president. "People say, 'He is a good man but we want a change.' "
Many Brazilians say that Lula is the man to bring about that change and that is a fundamental reason polls show him favored to be the next man in Brazil's hot seat.