RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Voters in Latin America's largest democracy moved Brazil sharply to the left Sunday by electing as their president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union leader.
Exit poll data published by DataFolha, the polling arm of the leading daily Folha de Sao Paulo, projected da Silva the winner with 63 percent of the valid vote to 37 percent for Jose Serra, the ruling government's candidate.
Da Silva had failed in three prior presidential bids, but a slumping economy, soaring crime, high unemployment and a widespread desire for change helped him prevail on his 57th birthday.
"This is the happiest day of my life," da Silva said after voting Sunday morning in industrial Sao Bernardo do Campo.
He dedicated victory to the "suffering people" of Brazil and to his mother, who raised eight children on her own in extreme poverty.
"My only regret is having arrived here 22 years after my mother died," da Silva said.
Da Silva was elected with overwhelming support from Brazil's poor, who consider that he has struggled like them. Imprisoned for challenging military dictators, he was in jail when his mother died. Da Silva's first wife and son died during childbirth. He lost a pinky finger in a factory accident.
"I think he has suffered much in his personal life, so I think he understands us," said Edina Gunha, an unemployed housekeeper in Rio de Janeiro, after voting for da Silva.
The election of a veteran leftist is likely to put Latin America's most populous and geographically largest nation on a collision course with the United States. Throughout the campaign, da Silva criticized Brazil's leaders' submission to U.S. foreign and economic policy. He blasted ongoing hemisphere-wide free-trade talks as "economic annexation" by the United States.
That rhetoric caused financial investors to fret that da Silva, who moderated his views in his campaign, is really a radical who will turn away from free-market reforms in favor of a closed, protectionist economy. In his campaign, da Silva backed most broad economic reforms and pledged to run a budget surplus, but said job creation was his top priority and pledged to favor companies and sectors of the economy that generate employment.
Da Silva aides said Sunday that a transition team should be announced Tuesday, with an eye toward calming investors who have battered Brazil's stock and currency markets in recent months. The team is expected to include bankers and business leaders in a nod to nervous foreign and domestic investors.