Brasilia: Brazil`s ruling party candidate and front-runner in next week`s Presidential Election came under heavy fire in a TV debate on Sunday over corruption allegations and her government`s relationship with Iran.
Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers` Party has seen her lead shrink by 3 to 4 percentage points from a week ago but she would still win the October 03 vote with an absolute majority, recent opinion polls showed.
Rousseff, who was President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva`s energy minister and chief of staff, was on the defensive from the outset of the debate on TV Record but held her ground with three other candidates.
Jose Serra, the main opposition candidate, used his first chance to blast Lula`s foreign policy.
"Brazil in recent years has allied itself with dictatorial regimes such as Iran, which persecute women, hang dissidents, arrest journalists ... and clearly are in a race for the atomic bomb," Serra said in reference to Lula`s mediation efforts over Iran`s nuclear program, which included two meetings with its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Before Rousseff had a chance to respond, she was accused of turning a blind eye to an alleged graft scheme involving her deputy as chief of staff.
"The truth is corruption hit home. Either you are incompetent or collusive," Plinio Arruda de Sampaio, the outspoken socialist candidate who is a distant fourth place in the polls, told Rousseff.
"You have a lot of people to nominate. Are you competent to do that?" Sampaio asked.
Ethics accusations resurfaced several times during the debate, forcing Rousseff to defend Lula`s and her track record.
"The Lula administration is not one of scandals ... I won`t sweep anything under the carpet," she said. "I have been a public servant for 25 years."
Serra, the 68-year-old former Sao Paulo state governor, is betting that weeks of intense media coverage of the scandal will further chip away at Rousseff`s lead and deprive her of the absolute majority needed on October 03 to avoid a run-off vote four weeks later.
While Rousseff skirted some of the issues, the 62-year-old former civil servant held her stance and played it safe by highlighting her government`s achievements in job creation, poverty reduction and education.
In one rebuttal, she recalled a major power crisis during the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula`s predecessor, during which Serra was planning minister.
Neither Serra nor Rousseff are expected to break radically from the current government`s mostly market-friendly economic policies, though both believe in a strong government and Rousseff would promote state enterprises in key sectors.