August 14, 2006

Ahead in polls, Brazil’s Lula no-show at debate

By Todd Benson

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz
Inacio Lula da Silva was a no-show on Monday night at the first
debate in the country's presidential race, leaving other
candidates free to bash him in hopes of chipping away at his
commanding lead in the polls.

With polls showing Lula as the clear front-runner heading
into the October 1 election, he declined the invitation to
debate his five challengers live on TV Bandeirantes, saying he
had to focus on his duties as head of state instead.

The candidates openly mocked Lula's decision to stay away,
frequently turning to the empty chair that had been reserved
for the president while they railed at the administration's
perceived shortcomings.

Lula's closest rival in the race, Geraldo Alckmin of the
centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, kicked off the event
by suggesting that the president was disrespectful to voters by
refusing to openly debate crucial issues such as crime and
economic growth.

Heloisa Helena, a self-proclaimed socialist firebrand who
is gaining support among left-wing voters disillusioned with
Lula's shift to the center, said the president's absence
amounted to "arrogance."

Some of the harshest criticism came from Lula's former
education minister, Cristovam Buarque, who broke with the
ruling Workers' Party to join a smaller party further to the

"The Lula administration has brought a lot of
disappointments, but I would say one of the biggest yet is his
absence here," Buarque said. "It's a lack of respect for the
democratic process."

Even criticism that was initially aimed at Alckmin, who
stepped down as governor of Sao Paulo state to run for
president, ended up being redirected at Lula. When one
candidate tried to lay the blame on Alckmin for a recent wave
of gang violence in Sao Paulo, he responded by pointing a
finger at the federal government.

"Crime is a national problem, it's a problem in all of
Brazil, it's a problem of the president of the Republic,"
Alckmin said. "I'm just sorry that President Lula isn't here so
I can ask him why he has been so negligent in public security."


Alckmin dropped in the polls last week after a powerful
organized crime group called the First Command of the Capital,
or PCC by its Portuguese initials, stirred mayhem in and around
Sao Paulo by attacking police and firebombing buses and public

The gang also briefly kidnapped two television journalists
over the weekend and forced TV Globo, Brazil's most influential
network, to air a video in which an alleged gang member read a
statement criticizing the dire conditions of Sao Paulo's prison

Pollsters say many voters associate the violence with
Alckmin, whose tenure as governor of Sao Paulo coincided with
the PCC's transformation from a prison gang into a
sophisticated crime ring with a large following in poor
neighborhoods all around the state.

The unrest in Sao Paulo has helped make crime a top issue
in this year's campaign while also exposing a deep political
rift between the federal government and Alckmin's successor as
the state governor, Claudio Lembo of the conservative Liberal
Front Party.

Lula has offered several times to deploy the army on Sao
Paulo's streets to quell the violence. But Lembo has refused
the offer, suggesting that Lula was trying to use the crisis in
Sao Paulo to his own political advantage.

Alckmin echoed that criticism in Monday's debate, and went
so far as to suggest that the PCC attacks were part a broader
campaign aimed at derailing his bid for the presidency.

"What we're seeing is electoral terrorism," he said. "They
(the PCC) want to influence the elections."