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October 9, 2006 5:29 pm

Alckmin puts Lula on defensive in debate

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The battle for Brazil’s presidency has taken on a more aggressive tone following the first televised debate between President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the left-leaning PT, running for re-election, and his challenger, Geraldo Alckmin of the centrist PSDB.

Mr Lula da Silva was put on the defensive from the outset by surprisingly tough questioning from Mr Alckmin, who made much of the corruption scandals that have dogged the government during Mr Lula da Silva’s four-year term, especially last month’s botched attempt by leaders of the president’s campaign team to implicate in corruption the PSDB’s victorious candidate for governor of São Paulo state.

Brazil held presidential, congressional and state elections on October 1. The presidency and 10 out of 27 state governorships – where no candidate won an outright majority – go to a second round on October 29.

Sunday night’s debate was eagerly awaited in Brazil as it was the first direct confrontation between the president and his challenger. Mr Lula da Silva declined to take part in televised debates during campaigning for the first round. His absence from a widely viewed debate two days before the poll was seen as contributing to his shock failure to secure victory. He had previously led Mr Alckmin in opinion polls by big margins.

The botched smear campaign also contributed to Mr Alckmin’s 11th-hour surge in support and he had been expected to play on the scandal during the debate. But his aggressive and incisive performance was out of keeping with his image as a colourless technocrat.

“The president didn’t expect Alckmin to perform like that,” said Lucia Hippólito, a radio commentator. “Nobody did. Lula was completely disoriented.”

Mr Lula da Silva was visibly irritated during much of the debate and left the television studios quickly after it ended. But he recovered some ground during the two-hour programme and attempted to associate Mr Alckmin with the unpopular presidency of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the PSDB.

Supporters of both sides claimed victory after the debate. But it is unlikely to have shifted voter support significantly.

“Nobody wins much in televised debates,” Ms Hippólito said. “The important thing is not to lose. Each was trying to reinforce his support where it is already strong, to not lose any voters and perhaps advance a little. In this respect Alckmin was probably more successful.”

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