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Luiz Antonio Azareias, a 57-year-old retired factory worker, is smoking a cigarette under intermittent drizzle in the central square of São Bernardo, an industrial town in greater São Paulo. Like many in the town, he is a reluctant voter for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, running for re-election next month.

“I’ll vote for Lula,” Mr Azareias says, “but only for lack of any other option. He promised a lot and he didn’t deliver. My life hasn’t got any worse, but in a few years’ time who knows. The government says the economy is growing but that’s not the impression you get.”

Mr Lula da Silva is a long-time resident of São Bernardo and first rose to national prominence there as a leader of the powerful metalworkers’ union.

Four years ago he was on the verge of being elected president and was riding a wave of popular support in the town. Today he looks certain of re-election, possibly with an outright majority at the first round of voting on October 1. Yet the mood in São Bernardo is as lukewarm as the weather.

“Lula is the least bad of the lot, so I suppose I’ll vote for him,” says Ailton Rodrigues Costa, a metal worker at a motor parts factory.

São Bernardo, in fact, has undergone deep changes over the past four years, not all of them related to this government’s policies.

The town grew quickly from the 1950s with the arrival of car, bus and lorry makers such as Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz. But in the past decade many have moved to other parts of Brazil. Volkswagen is about to lay off 3,600 workers and would like to close its factory altogether.

Unemployment, consequently, is a problem. Yet the number of new shops and cafés along the high street suggests service industries are doing well and the town has an air of prosperity, evidenced by a new technical college and a number of upper middle class apartment buildings.

Yet the sense of frustration is palpable.

“I don’t know who I’ll vote for,” says René de Souza, a driver. “Probably Lula for lack of anyone better. Nothing’s changed for me, it’s just more of the same. Unemployment is just as bad, not to mention the amount of corruption [in government]. Nobody has a real plan of action.”

Such attitudes are not surprising. São Bernardo’s “typical” resident is representative of Brazil’s hard-pressed middle-earners: a factory or service industry worker, making more money than the national average, with enough to put a child or two through a moderate college and take the occasional holiday, but not enough to have capital to invest and make the easy earnings available to those who can take advantage of Brazil’s very high interest rates.

These are the people most sensitive to the refusal of the Brazilian economy to grow at anything like its potential and needs, largely because of the government’s failure to tackle politically difficult reforms, such as cuts in payroll and pensions, needed to provide money for investment and growth.

So it is a reflection of the lacklustre campaign run by Geraldo Alckmin, presidential candidate of the centrist PSDB – who promises to tackle such difficulties head-on – that so few in São Bernardo expressed support for him during the FT’s straw poll at the weekend.

Yet as well as frustration, there is also an awareness of the benefits to the poor of low inflation and spending on social programmes, the main reasons for Mr Lula da Silva’s expected victory.

“I’ll vote for Lula,” says Marcos Roberto de Moreira, an unemployed security guard who was a metalworker at Ford’s factory until he received his redundancy notice on Christmas Eve 2000. “He’s the only president who’s ever helped the poor. The other lot don’t give a damn.”

Other voters reflect a common attitude: not just that Mr Lula da Silva is good for the poor, but that he has achieved much that the former PSDB government and its centre-right allies in the PFL failed to do – even though it is precisely by maintaining the PSDB’s monetary policies that this government has kept inflation under control.

“The parties of the right have always dominated,” says Jenniffer Regina Brandão, an unemployed nurse who moved to São Bernardo from the poor north-eastern state of Pará in May. “Lula is doing his bit. Four years isn’t enough to turn things round but in the next four years things will get better.”

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