Local defeat for Brazil's ruling Workers' Party a setback for Lula


AFTER A CAMPAIGN in which it was accused of stirring up homophobia, Brazil's ruling Workers' Party suffered a crushing defeat in the battle for control of South America's biggest city on Sunday.

São Paulo's mayor, Gilberto Kassab of the opposition conservative Democrats, won 61 per cent of the vote in a run-off round against just 39 per cent for Workers' Party candidate Marta Suplicy.

Ms Suplicy's campaign was dogged by controversy after it ran ads asking of the bachelor Mr Kassab: "Is he married? Does he have children?" which drew a stinging rebuke from the city's gay community, most of which had been backing her.

She had been tipped as a possible presidential candidate for the Workers' Party to replace president Lula da Silva ("Lula") in 2010 but her defeat on Sunday has all but ended those hopes.

The big winner in the São Paulo race aside from Mr Kassab was José Serra, the state's governor. From the opposition Social Democrats, he strongly backed Mr Kassab, whose victory reinforces Mr Serra's position as the most powerful leader of the opposition and its likely candidate for president in 2010.

The Workers' Party did score important victories in cities in greater São Paulo but lost high-profile contests for state capitals in Porto Alegre and Salvador. This raises doubts about how much of Lula's massive popularity can be transferred to party candidates.

This will particularly trouble the ambitions of Dilma Rousseff, Lula's chief of staff and widely considered his choice of successor in 2010. A former Marxist guerrilla, she is considered a tough and able technocrat but lacking in charisma or personal base within the party.

In Brazil's third city of Belo Horizonte, a candidate backed by both the Workers' Party and Social Democrats won easily. It was the first time the two bitterest rivals in Brazilian politics fought a major campaign together, long a dream of many Brazilians frustrated that the country's two main progressive political movements would rather form alliances with corrupt and right-wing parties than work together.

The alliance's victory is a boost for the presidential ambitions of the man who put it together - Aécio Neves, governor of Minas Gerias state, of which Belo Horizonte is the capital. Neves has called his local Workers' Party-Social Democrat alliance an "embryo" for what could occur on the national stage.