Sun, Oct 29, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Lula comes under heavy fire from rival candidate

AFP , SAO PAULO

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came under heavy fire on Friday as his rival attacked him on issues ranging from healthcare to corruption in a final debate two days ahead of the run-off presidential election.

Former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin, who trails Lula by more than 20 points in opinion polls, blamed the incumbent for sluggish economic growth, high unemployment, insufficient healthcare and a deficient education system.

The challenger, who is favored by the business community, also highlighted the scandals that have tainted Lula's leftist Workers Party (PT) and accused the president of seeking to sell off the Amazon.

The charismatic president often found himself on the defensive as the usually soft-spoken Alckmin aggressively attacked the government's performance.

"How is it possible that a country with Brazil's wealth cannot care for its children properly," Alckmin said, claiming 10 percent of children who should be at school had to work.

"In all of Brazil, agriculture is in crisis, the people are suffering in the interior [and] there is poverty in metropolitan areas," he said.

"Brazil under Lula's government thankfully achieved a record increase in taxes," he added.

Alckmin turned the tables on Lula, who has claimed the challenger favored an unpopular sell-off of state-run companies.

"Could he explain the law he passed that would practically privatize the Amazon," Alckmin said in reference to legislation that allows private companies to acquire 30-year concessions to exploit some areas of the Amazon basin.

Lula pointed out Alckmin's Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) had signed onto the law he said was crucial to "stop invasions of the forest."

He also dismissed as erroneous the negative figures brandished by his rival and repeatedly insisted Brazilians were far better off now than they were four years ago.

"Brazil's economy is a great, solid economy ... I am confident Brazil is ready to grow because all bases are set: more exports, lower interest rates -- they are dropping -- less inflation [and] an increase of the minimum salary," he said.

Lula heads into todays's run-off election with more than 60 percent in voter intention polls.

A onetime shoeshine boy, Lula, 61, is highly popular among impoverished Brazilians, thanks largely to his government's flagship social program that hands out cash subsidies to more 11 million needy families.

Once a firebrand strike leader, Lula has toned down his leftist rhetoric and maintained orthodox economic policies since his election, reassuring edgy investors.

But his campaign has been sullied by a series of scandals that led to the resignation of several government ministers and top PT officials.

Alckmin, 53, has capitalized on the sleaze, presenting himself as an honest alternative to a scandal-tainted government.

"The people are outraged with what has been going on for years and continues going on. The money that goes to corruption is the money that is lacking for schools, hospitals and sanitation," he said.

New claims of campaign wrongdoing by the PT that emerged last month appeared to have cost Lula the chance of winning outright in the Oct. 1 first round election.

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