Page last updated at 15:26 GMT, Saturday, 4 October 2008 16:26 UK

Brazil local vote to have national impact

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

Brazil is one of the largest democracies in the world and on Sunday millions of people will go to the polls to elect mayors and city councils in more than 5,500 municipal areas.

Campaigning on streets of Sao Paulo
President Lula must step down in 2010 at the end of two terms in office

It will be the last significant electoral test in Latin America's largest country before the presidential elections in 2010.

That presidential contest will be the first in more than 20 years when the name of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will not be one of the choices open to voters

So this week's local elections have been given an extra edge with some of the key political figures hoping to replace President Lula working hard to make a mark.

The elections mark an early start to the campaign to choose the next president of Brazil.

Opinion polls suggest the president himself is currently enjoying an extraordinary level of support running at close to 80%, even 90%, in some parts of the country.

As he is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, President Lula is seeking to pave the way for the candidate of his choice to stand in 2010.

Political operator

It is not as easy as it sounds as his Workers Party (PT) - from which at times he appears increasingly distant - currently lacks a big name figure that would represent an obvious successor to such a popular president.

At the moment the likeliest choice would appear to be the powerful figure of Dilma Rousseff, the president's chief of staff.

While in her 20s she was imprisoned and tortured for her part in armed resistance to Brazil's military dictatorship, and she has been active in left-wing politics for many years.

Ms Rousseff, while lacking the charisma of her boss, is seen as an able political operator.

There have even been suggestions that President Lula would like to see her take office for one term until he could run again in 2014.

Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst from Tendencias consultancy
There is no clear successor to President Lula, says analyst Schmitt

"She is the most important minister in Lula's cabinet," says Rogerio Schmitt, a political analyst from Tendencias consultancy.

"She was first the energy minister and she is now the chief of staff of President Lula, and she is very respected for getting what she wants done, and always operating behind the scenes."

More recently Ms Rousseff has been sticking close to the president in his many public appearances.

He has been quick to lavish her with praise, at one point calling her the "mother of PAC" - PAC being the government's multi-billion dollar plan for the country's economic development.

Controversial role

But in the presidential race she may well face the experienced opposition politician and Sao Paulo state governor, Jose Serra.

He lost to President Lula in 2002, and Ms Rousseff's task, if it does in fact fall to her, will not be easy.

Mr Serra, of the opposition Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), is a former health minister who helped develop an acclaimed Aids treatment programme. As a student leader he had to go into exile during the dictatorship.

Mr Serra has also played a controversial part in this Sunday's race for mayor of Sao Paulo city.

He has not given his enthusiastic backing to the official candidate of his own party Geraldo Alckmin, as might have been expected.

Campaigning on streets of Sao Paulo
The elections will produce the contenders for the 2010 presidential vote

Instead it has been clear his preference lies with the current mayor and candidate of the centre-right Democrats party, Gilberto Kassab.

Analysts now believe the mayoral election in Sao Paulo could well be heading for a second round run-off between Mr Kassab, and the candidate of the Workers' Party Marta Suplicy, herself a former Tourism Minister and ex-mayor of Sao Paulo.

"Surprisingly it is best for Serra if Kassab goes to the second round, than if Alckmin goes to the second round, even though Alckmin is the official PSDB candidate," says Rogerio Schmitt.

"Because Alckmin is being supported by the Governor of Minas Gerais, Aecio Neves, who is the other PSDB governor who is trying to become the presidential candidate in 2010."

Governor Neves is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, a pivotal figure during the period when Brazil returned to democracy following the dictatorship, and he is another figure to watch in Brazilian politics as the presidential election approaches.

"Aecio Neves is probably the most popular governor of Brazil but very few people know him outside of his home state of Minas Gerais," Rogerio Schmitt says.

"He is still very young - in his mid-40s - and probably he doesn't have that many chances against Jose Serra in terms of becoming the PSDB candidate in 2010.

"So he is doing his best, not only own to win the elections in his state capital Belo Horizonte, but he is trying to become more well known among voters and other political leaderships around the country."

'New electoral map'

Joao Paulo Peixoto, Professor of Government at the University of Brasilia has little doubt about the importance of Sunday's vote.

"The symbolism embedded in this election is big," he told the BBC News website.

"The result will give us a new electoral map of the country regarding 2010. Sao Paulo will be especially important for that matter."

"Lula's popularity will not be damaged by the result. However the Workers' Party will survive stronger or weaker after 6 October, regarding the presidential race. Not to mention the importance of the result for Jose Serra's aspirations," adds Mr Peixoto.

Campaigning for the local elections has been around bread-and-butter issues such as transport and health.

In the city of Rio de Janeiro the issue of violence has loomed large.

The army has been sent in to some favelas, or shanty towns, to ensure that drugs gangs or illegal militias can not unduly influence the vote.

However, the more lasting implications may well be on the wider political stage and just how this election helps or hinders the ambitions of those vying to be the next president of Brazil.

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