Both the Brazilian government and the opposition claimed victory in the first televised debate, Sunday evening, between President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin who on October 29 will be disputing the presidential runoff.
"It was a very good debate because it helped to compare political personalities, ethical references and President Lula undoubtedly came out strengthened", said Tarso Genro, Institutional Relations minister, who together with most of the cabinet members was present at the Bandeirantes television studio in Sao Paulo in support of their leader.
However São Paulo mayor Gilberto Kassab from the conservative Liberal Party, who with candidate Alckmin Social democrats make up the heart of the "Coalition for a decent Brazil", argued that "Alckmin showed he has an in depth knowledge of the country’s problems, that he has solutions for them and equally important the conditions and qualifications to become a great president of Brazil".
Lula from the Workers Party and Alckmin from the Social Democrats debated for two and a half hours on issues of interest for Brazil such as education, health, poverty but most of the time was dedicated to trade charges relating to the corruption scandals involving the ruling party and Lula’s very close associates and advisors.
"The debate was as expected, most tense, aggressive at the start but later found its course which was discussing each candidates’ proposals", said the Lower House president Aldo Rebelo from the Communist Party, who supports Lula.
Tourism Minister, Walfrido dos Mares Guia, said it was the first television debate in which a Brazilian president participates, and this "can only be interpreted as a display of confidence from Lula in his administration’s plans and programs."
Lula did not show up in the debates leading to the first round of voting, October first, arguing that he represented the Presidential institution and as such could not be exposed to attacks from his contenders. However on failing to be re-elected in the first round as he seemed to be sure he would, the president decided to show up for the four debates programmed before October 29.
Opposition leaders said they were pleased with how the debate evolved and are confident it will help attract more votes for candidate Alckmin. São Paulo governor elect, José Serra described the debate as "tough", but Alckmin had "a better performance".
However analysts said neither candidate’s debate performance was expected to have much effect on the election.
"Generally in Brazil debates do not change the electoral picture … unless one comes off very poorly," said Francisco Fonseca of the Catholic Pontificate University in Sao Paulo. "Most of the electorate already has decided … and I’m not sure the debate will make them change."
The runoff could go either way, said Denis Rosenfield, professor of political ethics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.
"Nobody today can predict the result," he said. "The debate serves to set the tone of the campaign … Whoever wins; it will be by a very small margin."
Both candidates are to meet again in three more televised debates before the runoff.
Alckmin focused his attack on corruption charges against Lula da Silva’s party. "So many lies!" Alckmin said. He called Lula "arrogant" and said he lacked "moral authority."
The Workers’ Party has been mired in charges of vote-buying and illegal campaign financing since 2004. Top party officials have been forced to resign, including Lula’s powerful Chief of Staff José Dirceu, but the president who was elected in 2002 and is seeking a second four-year term, has denied he knew of any wrongdoing.
Lula da Silva counterattacked by accusing Alckmin’s Social Democracy Party of corruption and suppressing congressional probes during its eight years in power from 1994-2002.
Both candidates avoided direct answers to questions about their plans to reform the social security system, lower interest rates of 14.25% or combat organized crime