Brazil took a decisive turn to the left on Sunday, electing as its president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers' Party, a former factory worker, labor union leader and political prisoner who has never held executive office. The margin of victory was the largest in Brazilian history.
With 97 percent of the ballots tallied Sunday night, da Silva was leading handily with 61.4 percent of the vote, compared with 38.6 percent for his rival, Jose Serra of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party, which has governed this nation of 175-million people for the past eight years. His 51.2-million votes, more than President Bush or Al Gore won in 2000, give him an indisputable mandate to remake Latin America's most populous country.
"This is a true landslide, an historic shift of direction which shows how much this country wants change," said Candido Mendes, a leading political scientist and the author of Lula: An Option More Than a Vote. "Lula has won in every region of the country and at every strata of society."
Da Silva's resounding victory is also likely to reverberate abroad, reinvigorating the left throughout Latin America and unnerving international financial markets. The Workers' Party has been a consistent critic of the United States and its values, and has promised to reduce what it calls Brazil's economic and political "subservience" to foreign interests.
Even before the voting began, Cuba's leader, Fidel Castro, hailed da Silva's victory, saying "we are friends, and I admire his perseverance." Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, spoke of da Silva joining him in a Latin American "axis of good." The White House was less enthusiastic, with the president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, saying Sunday night that President Bush "looks forward to working productively with Brazil."
"Hope has vanquished fear," da Silva said Sunday after Serra called him to concede. He said that as president he would "do everything within my reach to bring peace to our continent" and "build a country that has more justice, brotherhood and solidarity."
Brazil's willingness to elect a working-class president for the first time had been clear since the initial round of balloting on Oct. 6, when da Silva fell just short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
But the "red wave" that some political commentators had predicted would sweep Brazil on Sunday did not materialize, as da Silva's coattails proved shorter than he had hoped. Though the Workers' Party picked up numerous new congressional seats in the first round, its candidates in runoffs for state governorships did not fare as well. As a result, the five largest of Brazil's 27 states will be governed by other parties.
Nevertheless, da Silva's victory makes him Brazil's first left-wing president in more than 40 years and the first to win the post at the polls.
In three previous attempts, da Silva had never won more than a quarter of the vote in the first round. In those races, his party's program was deemed too radical, and the angry, vindictive tone of his speeches alarmed voters. But after losing emphatically in 1998, he began to moderate the Workers' Party platform and his image, a process that gave birth to what the Brazilian press has come to call "Lula Light."
With growth throttled, the country's currency losing more than a quarter of its value against the dollar this year and unemployment soaring, da Silva's attacks on the government's policies have proved more popular than in the past. He also promised to create 10-million jobs during his four-year term and to bring down interest rates.