A s Brazil heads into the second round of its presidential election, history looks to be in the making. For the first time since their country became a republic, the Brazilian people appear set to elect a working-class man as president. Although the front-runner, Mr. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has promised to moderate his leftist inclinations, international financial markets are nervous. Brazil’s economy is fragile: The next president, no matter who he is, will need the confidence and support of the markets as he formulates policies that benefit the Brazilian people.

Mr. Da Silva’s victory would mark the first leftist government elected since Brazil became a republic in 1889 and the first in power since Joao Goulart claimed the presidency in 1961. Since democracy was restored to Brazil in 1985, the country has been ruled by right-center governments. Mr. Da Silva, a former metalworker who lost a finger to a lathe and who speaks with a lisp, has contested the presidency four times. Voters have been suspicious of his leftist inclinations: He never polled more than a quarter of the first-round vote in previous elections.

Cognizant of those difficulties, Mr. Da Silva and his Workers’ Party reworked their image, jettisoning some of the ideology of the left. Mr. Da Silva says he will not repudiate the country’s debt or the agreement reached with the International Monetary Fund that allowed the institution to provide $30 billion in relief for the Brazilian economy. He has also softened his union-leader rhetoric, saying he will now negotiate with, rather than dictate to, his opponents. There is some proof that the changes are more than cosmetic: Mr. Da Silva forged an electoral alliance with the Liberal Party, a conservative group, and convinced its leader to be his running mate.

The makeover appears to have been successful. Mr. Da Silva claimed 46.4 percent of the ballot, or 39.3 million votes — almost twice the number of votes he got in 1998, and 3.2 million more votes than President Fernando Henrique Cardoso won when he was re-elected that year. He will face off in the next round of voting against Mr. Jose Serra, a former health minister and Mr. Cardoso’s handpicked successor, who won 19.7 million votes, a little less than a quarter of the ballots (23.2 percent). Two other candidates together accounted for 29 percent.

Mr. Serra is battling both Mr. Da Silva and his predecessor’s failures. Unemployment has been rising and stands officially at 8 percent, up from 6 percent eight years ago (and the unofficial tally is considerably higher than the government numbers). About a quarter of Brazil’s population, around 40 million people, live below the poverty line, and the country has the world’s fourth-worst income distribution. Corruption and crime are other big concerns for most Brazilians, as is the public debt, which has topped $260 billion. Unease about any government’s ability to tackle the problem has pushed the currency down against the dollar, spurring inflation and encouraging capital flight.

Voters were also asked to select two-thirds of the Senate and all of the members of the lower house in the recent election. Mr. Da Silva’s Workers’ Party picked up six seats in the Senate, giving it 14 of the chamber’s 81 seats. The party also took over the government of two small states and is in the runoffs for governor in eight others. Previously, the Workers’ Party controlled just three state governments. Five other states were won by parties led by defeated left-of-center presidential contenders. State governors are powerful and virtually independent; they scuttled previous austerity plans the Cardoso government tried to implement.

The divisions in the legislature (where centrist parties hold a majority) and among the states means that whoever wins the second round will have a tough time passing legislation without making compromises.

Mr. Da Silva’s win in the second round could be a landmark for the entire region. Brazil is Latin America’s biggest country — with 170 million people, a land mass bigger than the United States and the world’s ninth-largest economy — and its influence is felt throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

There is speculation that a victory for the left in Brazil could offer a “third way” between the market-based economies that follow the Washington consensus and the radical leftism of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Perhaps, but Mr. Da Silva’s first task is delivering on the promise of growth for Brazil. His predecessor has been unable to honor that pledge. That is far more important than any theoretical contribution to the political debate in Latin America.

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