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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January, 2005, 17:09 GMT
How long will Brazil love Lula?

By Adhemar Altieri
Editor, InfoBrazil.com

Halfway through his first term in office, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has maintained an extraordinarily high approval rating in Brazilian opinion polls.

Adhemar Altieri considers the reasons for Lula's enduring popularity - and asks how long it can last.

Man wearing Lula mask in protest of the minimum wage in Brasilia
Lula is seen as an icon of Brazil's people
Brazilians have begun the New Year having something of a cautious love affair with their president, the charismatic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Cautious because it is one of those affairs where the two sides have known each other for quite some time - but haven't yet decided whether the relationship is for keeps.

For now there's a glimmer in the eyes and a smile on the faces of many Brazilians when the subject is President Lula.

On the first day of 2005, he reached the halfway mark of his four-year term with the kind of support any head of state would love to have: a big thumbs-up rating from 45% of Brazilian voters. Only 13% say he's done a poor job.

A former lathe operator and one-time firebrand labour leader, Lula became president of Brazil at his fourth time of trying back in 2002 with a decisive victory celebrated around the world.

Policy worries

Inspiring as this real life story truly is, there is a practical side to consider. You could say Lula and Brazilians are at the stage in a love affair where quirks, blemishes and imperfections get noticed - a time for the partners to start deciding if they can live with those flaws or not.

Some die-hard supporters of Lula and his leftist P-T, the Workers Party, are raising serious doubts.

Brazilian farmer
Increased demand for exports is among the reasons for Brazil's economic growth
Long-time Lula backer Leonardo Boff - best known for his controversial exit from the Catholic Church a few years back over his Liberation Theology - stated in a recent article that the national and international elite have succeeded in seducing Lula to their way of thinking.

A lot was expected of a Lula administration in the way of social programmes, and they simply have not materialised.

By most accounts, the Zero Hunger programme - announced with fanfare as a top priority - has turned out to be no more than a collection of existing programmes under a new name.

Lula's foreign policy may have won points in the developing world, but critics say it has also alienated the United States, Brazil's top trading partner.

One result of this is stalled negotiations for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was supposed to be in place and functioning this year.

But Lula has certainly delivered on a key item - the economy - and surveys show a direct connection between this and his popularity.

Lula managed to steer Brazil into a brisk recovery in 2004, featuring some of the best results the country has seen in almost a decade. Growth in excess of 5% for example, compared to -0.5% the year before.

Industrial output is way up, unemployment is down, and even the harshest critic has to admit the lot of Brazilians has improved in the past year.

That was quite visible during the holiday season. Two shopping centres tried something new that now promises to become a trend - they stayed open overnight from 23 to 24 December.

One even hired a samba school to parade down the aisles, to get those shoppers dancing to the tills. That shopping centre attracted nearly 500,000 shoppers for that special promotion.

Unanswered question

But the unanswered question about Brazil's economic growth in 2004 is whether or not it's sustainable.

Lula's opponents have been using the phrase "flight of the chicken" to describe the economy - if you've ever seen a chicken attempting to fly you know it won't last, and all that can be hoped for is a reasonably smooth landing.

President Lula plays around with boxing gloves at the Olympic Village in Manaus
For many, Lula is still a guy in a T-shirt who now invites friends to the presidential palace on weekends for a barbecue and a football match
There's also a controversial political ingredient involving the economy. Lula's administration is being accused of producing these positive results by maintaining economic policies he and the Workers Party pledged for years to completely overhaul if elected.

But no such overhaul happened - and it's generally accepted the basis of the economic recovery underway is exactly what was in place during the administration of Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

It's a typical IMF prescription: deep spending cuts, so a surplus can be produced to pay off more of Brazil's huge debt, together with high interest rates, among the highest in the world - the current benchmark rate is at 17.75% a year and the Central Bank says they may rise further.

How can a president who sticks to policies that at times seem astonishing for someone on the left - and keeps interest rates so high - continue to be so popular?

Well, more money in people's pockets and more job openings go a long way. But it certainly helps that Lula is a very likeable guy.

I first met him in the early 1980s when I was a television reporter, and he was still with the metalworkers union in the industrial outskirts of Sao Paulo.

The military still ruled Brazil but the end of the regime was on the horizon. Censorship had been lifted but many media outlets were still treading carefully, not entirely certain of what they could say without facing consequences.

He smiled and said: "You know and I know, that the best stuff I say to you will be cut from your story when it airs tonight - but I'm going to give you the interview anyway because you're a worker, and you're here doing your job."

For many, Lula is still a guy in a T-shirt who now invites friends to the presidential palace on weekends for a barbecue and a football match.

'Big scrap heap'

Unlike other heads of state, when he jokes with reporters, it's not off the record. His quips get printed and aired, and many won't soon be forgotten.

After an official visit to Gabon, he declared: "I went to Gabon to learn how a president can stay in office for 37 years, and still seek re-election" - a reference to Gabon's dictator, Omar Bongo Ondimba.

Omar Bongo Ondimba
Lula's remarks about Omar Bongo Ondimba were typical of his style
And deciding to improvise his speech at the opening of the first Annual Summit of the World Tourism Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development, he declared that "in this country, there's no lack of people who root against you, hoping things don't work out - like an ex-husband who doesn't want his former wife to be happy with another man. He keeps hoping that her new husband will be even worse than he was."

Lula's style might be considered too informal at times, but he comes across as a genuine human being, as someone who says what's on his mind.

He talks like an ordinary person, and that helps the average Brazilian see the president as an equal.

But Lula will soon get to test his popularity. In mid-January, his new presidential Airbus will be delivered - a replacement for an old Boeing 707, for years nicknamed "the big scrap heap".

The price tag for the new plane is $57 million, and already calculations are being made about how that precious money could be better spent on combating hunger and crime.

Lula will no doubt respond - and his tone might well depend on just how well the proverbial economic chicken is flying that day.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.



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