RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's left-leaning Workers' Party posted significant wins in nationwide municipal elections Sunday and expanded its reach into this country's mammoth interior.
Two years after voters made Lula the nation's first working-class president, near-final returns Sunday showed they would hand victories to candidates of the Workers' Party in towns beyond its traditional base in big urban centers, giving a thumbs-up to Lula halfway through his term and boosting his chances for reelection in 2006.
Up for grabs were the mayoralties of all of Brazil's 5,500 municipalities, from tiny towns in the rainforest to some of the world's most populous cities, including Rio de Janeiro. With most of the vote counted Sunday night, the Workers' Party, or PT, looked poised to make sizable gains in the number of its mayors, possibly even doubling the pre-vote tally of 190.
However, races in several big cities were headed for runoffs Oct. 31, including in Sao Paulo, South America's most populous city. There, after a bitter campaign that set spending records for a local election in Brazil, incumbent Marta Suplicy of the Workers' Party will square off with former Health Minister Jose Serra, who lost the presidential race to Lula in 2002.
Still, said Brasilia-based political analyst David Fleischer, the PT's gains beyond its power bases should allow it to broaden its organizational support ahead of state and federal elections in two years.
"This will be a big push in expanding the PT even more inside the country and getting it ready for 2006, especially in increasing the number of [federal] deputies," Fleischer said.
The PT's strong showing also could strengthen Lula's hand in Brasilia, the capital, where his comrades in the legislature have had to share power in a rowdy coalition with rival parties. Those parties may be more inclined to work cooperatively with the president after Sunday's nationwide elections, which were the first since he took office last year and are widely seen as a strong indicator of popular sentiment toward his administration.
Fleischer said Lula and the PT would emerge with "more prestige" that would help him not only solidify his coalition but also silence rebels within his party who accuse him of having abandoned his leftist roots.
Workers' Party candidates won outright majorities in Belo Horizonte and Recife, the respective capitals of Minas Gerais and Pernambuco states. Besides Sao Paulo, the PT landed runoff spots in the cities of Porto Alegre and Curitiba, also major state capitals.
Here in Rio, the popular incumbent, Cesar Maia of the Liberal Front Party, appeared headed for a second term. The PT's candidate, Jorge Bittar, was never in serious contention.
Lula campaigned vigorously for Suplicy in Sao Paulo, the cradle of the Workers' Party but by no means an uncontested stronghold. Suplicy, a sexologist by training, is a longtime PT activist criticized for having an aloof, arrogant style and for failing to improve Sao Paulo's horrendous traffic.
Lula's approval ratings had been on a steady slide since Brazil's economic performance last year, the worst in a decade. But growth has picked up in recent months, resurrecting the president's standing in the polls and fueling optimism among party activists.
"The people will make the best choice," Lula told reporters confidently as he cast his ballot in Sao Bernardo do Campo, outside Sao Paulo, where he began his long political career as a union leader. The PT's nominee in Sao Bernardo do Campo, however, was trounced by an anti-PT coalition candidate.
Elected president on his fourth attempt, Lula, a former lathe operator, has pushed an agenda of reform, including changes in Brazil's unwieldy pensions, tax and bankruptcy codes. He has traveled widely to raise Brazil's profile on the international stage, especially as a leader of developing nations.
But promises of better social welfare at home, in a country whose wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority, have largely been unfulfilled. And many of Lula's comrades on the left consider his orthodox economic policies a continuation of those of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
His prospects for reelection, however, remain strong.
Voting is mandatory for Brazil's 120 million voters. Since 2000, all Brazilians have cast their votes electronically. But some critics question the system's security and reliability.