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Analysis-Jet-setting Lula risks losing focus on Brazil issues, allies say

Brazil's President Lula on state visit to Spain

By Lisandra Paraguassu

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's focus on foreign policy and a relentless schedule of trips abroad risks distracting him from tackling thorny domestic issues, two senior allies of the leftist president told Reuters.

Their frank comments, expressed on condition of anonymity, hint at growing discomfort within Lula's camp at his pace of travel and his commitment to brokering peace between Russia and Ukraine at a time when there is great pressure to quickly deliver results or risk handing advantage to former President Jair Bolsonaro and his right-wing supporters.

Both sources applauded Lula's desire to show the world Brazil was back after Bolsonaro tarnished the country's international standing - but not at the expense of solving domestic problems. One of the sources said they had told Lula he should focus more on tackling Brazil's problems as there was not much time to deliver results and a lot of work to be done.

A poll last month by Quaest/Genial found that 59% of Brazilians want Lula's Workers Party to focus on national issues rather than his recent drive to negotiate an end to the Russia-Ukraine war, against 35% who back the president's conflict resolution plan.

Lula has long prized pressing the flesh at international get-togethers. But so far, less than six months into his third term, he has made twice as many foreign trips as he did at the start of his first presidency in 2003.

On Wednesday, days after returning from King Charles' London coronation, the president will leave for the G7 Summit in Japan - his sixth trip abroad since taking office in January, including trips to Beijing and Washington.

By comparison, fellow leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, who skipped the coronation, has made five foreign trips since taking office in 2018.

"This emphasis on the foreign agenda is wrong and will not help the government at this moment," one of the sources, a senior presidential aide, told Reuters.

"You have to focus on decisive issues," the aide said, citing a need for higher economic growth and job creation.

Lula's press office defended his record, pointing to an early legislative win that guaranteed greater social spending on poorer families, among other measures.

"There is not just a focus on foreign policy, but on a set of actions, internal and external, to rebuild the country from the damage caused by the previous government," it said.

Bolsonaro's shunning of diplomatic niceties and multilateral institutions and his disregard for the Amazon rainforest meant Brazil's international reputation took a beating in Western countries during his presidency, while his anti-China rhetoric ruffled Beijing's feathers.

However, the sources said, Lula's frequent travel has delayed decision-making at a time when the economy is sluggish and the administration has little room for maneuver after last year's razor-tight election win that saw him beat Bolsonaro by just 1.8% of the vote.

Lula's approval rating slipped to 36% in the Quaest/Genial mid-April poll, from 40% a month earlier, including a notable nine-point drop in the poor northeast, a traditional bastion of his support.

ROCKY RELATIONSHIP WITH CONGRESS

Lula's domestic in-tray is complicated by his minority government's rocky relationship with a newly conservative Congress, where some lawmakers are complaining about his failure to release pork-barrel funds to unlock his legislative agenda.

Marco Feliciano, a pro-Bolsonaro lawmaker in the lower house, said "international trips are part of the presidential agenda, but not at the beginning of the government ... It's necessary to take care of the country and fulfill campaign promises."

Feliciano said that in five months, Lula had got next to nothing done domestically, as he had not been able to muster legislative support.

"The right," he added, "is united and working."

Lula needs congressional support for a new "fiscal anchor" to allow government finances to move ahead without increasing Brazil's public debt. Additionally, without legislative approval, his presidential decree to create a dozen new ministries will expire in June.

Lula's travels abroad are positive for the country, said Leonardo Barreto, head of political analysis at Vector Consultancy in Brasilia.

But Lula is unwilling to delegate, micromanages his ministers, and centralizes decision-making, which can be problematic, Barreto added.

Still, Lula has shown no sign of slowing down, with upcoming trips to the BRICS summit in South Africa in August, the United Nations General Assembly in September and the G20 summit in New Delhi later this year.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, additional reporting by Dave Graham and Anthony Boadle, writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Flavia Marreiro, Gabriel Stargardter and Rosalba O'Brien)