Some 126 million Brazilians were called to cast their ballots yesterday in a race that was likely to give a second term to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Silva da Lula, a self-styled champion of the downtrodden.
Lula, 60, a former strike leader who has distanced himself from his radical past, held a commanding lead in opinion polls over his closest and far less charismatic rival, former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, 53.
But it was unclear whether Lula would be able to win outright yesterday, after the polls out on the eve of the voting showed his support slipping, leaving him right on the brink of the 50 percent needed to avert a run-off election.
Stacks of dirty money nabbed in a botched smear campaign covered Brazil's front pages on Saturday as polls showed for the first time that Lula could be forced to a second round run-off.
Two polls released on Saturday night, the last before yesterday's first round vote, showed that Lula's total share of the valid vote continues to dwindle and Alckmin is closing ground fast.
His slide in the polls coincides with the "dossier" scandal that has been gaining momentum in the media over the past two weeks, the latest of a series of scandals that have dogged Lula and his Workers' Party over past two years.
In the middle of last month, two Workers' Party officials were arrested with almost US$800,000 in cash as they allegedly sought to buy documents they thought might tie Alckmin to a corrupt deal.
Another scandal, over illegal campaign financing, had forced several Cabinet ministers and Workers Party officials to resign last year.
The Ibope poll showed Lula with 45 percent of the vote, down from 48 percent on Wednesday, and Alckmin with 34 percent up from 32 percent. The Datafolha poll showed Lula with 46 percent, down from 49 percent three days ago, and Alckmin with 35 percent, up from 33 percent.
A onetime shoeshine boy with little formal education, Lula is hugely popular among impoverished Brazilians, who make up about a quarter of the 184 million population of South America's largest and most populous nation.
His popularity has survived a series of scandals that dogged his government and his leftist Workers Party thanks in part to an anti-poverty program under which 11 million struggling families get up to US$45 a month in subsidies.
And while the business communities would rather see Alckmin head the next government, they no longer perceive Lula as a dangerous firebrand leftist.
Since Lula assumed office in 2003, the government has maintained orthodox economic policies and restored public finances, while increasing the minimum wage.
He faces the electorate against the backdrop of a healthy econ-omy, although Alckmin claims growth, projected at 3 percent this year, falls far short of its potential.