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Corruption Claims Could Turn Brazil Election

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. In a few moments, a conversation with the top U.S. military officer in Iraq's Anbar province.

But first, some 125 millions voters cast their ballots in Brazil's national election today. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is seeking reelection, but his Workers Party has been plagued by allegations of a dirty tricks campaign and is under federal police investigation. The polls have closed and the ballots are being counted now. There are no official returns yet, but exit polls suggest that Lula may not win enough votes to avoid a runoff. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from our bureau in Rio de Janeiro.

Julie, what do the exit polls actually tell us?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, the findings of these exit polls, which included 60,000 voters, show that Lula has 50% of the vote and his nearest rival, Geraldo Alckmin, has 38%. Now, here's the rub. There's a margin of error of plus or minus two percent. So the exit polls, if they are accurate, would say Lula could be anywhere from 48% of the voters - of the votes - to 52% of the vote. And if he's under 50, plus one, an absolute majority, then this election will go to a second round of voting that will be held in four weeks, on October 29th.

ELLIOTT: Now, is this a surprise or is it breaking along the lines that people there expected?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, interestingly, this is turning out to be more of a nail-biter than had been predicted three weeks ago. At that time an outright victory for Lula was considered a foregone conclusion. Then a bombshell dropped two weeks ago. Federal police said they'd caught operatives of Lula's Workers Party with $800,000 in cash, prepared to buy a dossier of incriminating material that was going to smear the opposition. And that's dominated the news running up to the election.

And the latest poll - the polling that was released in advance of today's election - shows that the public was disgusted with corruption scandals and sleazy politics, and its support for Lula was eroding. And that could be what we're seeing in these exit polls.

ELLIOTT: Julie, even if the election were to go to a second round wouldn't Lula be expected to win that?

MCCARTHY: Well, the pollsters have put that question to voters and the answer comes out yes. Lula is a savvy campaigner. He's perceived to be the champion of the poor. And with 38 million Brazilians who live on two dollars or less a day, he's got a very solid base behind him. The problem for Lula in facing a second round is that it provides the opposition four more weeks to plumb the depths of this latest scandal and four more weeks of police to investigate things.

But I hasten to add, we're still in the realm of speculation. These are just exit polls. They're far from definitive. But it now appears that every single vote does matter for Lula tonight. He's that close in being put over the top and it could tip either way.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.