Divided Brazil votes for next president

Brazilian president and presidential candidate for the Workers Party, Dilma Rousseff (R) greets a child in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on October 25, 2014 (AFP Photo/Jefferson Bernardes)
After a dramatic, hard-fought race, Brazilians elect their next president Sunday, weighing 12 years of social progress against a yearning for economic revival, and for change.
Leftist incumbent Dilma Rousseff is the narrow favorite heading into the vote, with a four- to six-point advantage over center-right business favorite Aecio Neves in the race to lead the world\’s seventh-largest economy, Saturday\’s final surveys showed.
Datafolha gave Rousseff a 52-48 percent lead, just on the two-percentage-point margin for error, while indicating it saw a "probability" of her winning the contest.
An Ibope Institute poll for its part showed Rousseff ahead by 53-47 percent, breaking the technical tie.
Winning back front-runner status has been a battle for Brazil\’s first woman president — a former guerrilla once jailed and tortured for fighting the country\’s 1964-1985 military regime.
The vote is widely seen as a referendum on 12 years of government by her Workers\’ Party (PT) — eight under working-class hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and four under Rousseff, his seemingly less-charmed successor.
The party endeared itself to the masses with landmark social programs that have lifted millions from poverty, increased wages and brought unemployment to a record-low 4.9 percent.
But after Brazil benefited from an economic boom during the Lula years, the outlook has darkened since Rousseff won the 2010 election, the year economic growth peaked at 7.5 percent.
Rousseff, 66, has presided over rising inflation and a recession this year. She has also had to deal with massive protests last year against corruption, record spending on the World Cup, and poor services, notably education, health care and transport.
She has also been battered by a multi-billion-dollar embezzlement scandal implicating dozens of politicians — mainly her allies — at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
Before the October 5 first-round vote, she had to fend off environmentalist Marina Silva, who surged in the preference polls with her vow to become Brazil\’s first "poor, black" president when she dramatically entered the race after running mate Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash.
No sooner had the PT electoral machine dispatched Silva — who exited the first round with 21 percent of the vote, to Rousseff\’s 42 percent and Neves\’s 34 percent — than the incumbent had to beat back Neves, who converted the momentum of his first-round comeback into a narrow lead.
With the candidates fighting for every vote in this sprawling country of 202 million people, the campaign took on a level of virulence not seen since the return to democracy.
Rousseff, known for her tough skin, accused Neves of nepotism as governor of Minas Gerais state, then played up a media report that he once hit his then-girlfriend in public.
And she suggested he was driving "drunk or on drugs" when he refused to take a breathalyzer during a 2011 traffic stop.
Neves, a 54-year-old senator and the grandson of the man elected Brazil\’s first post-dictatorship president, responded in kind.
The Social Democracy Party (PSDB) candidate accused Rousseff of lying, incompetent economic management and "collusion" in the Petrobras kickbacks.
Brazil\’s 142.8 million voters are divided along social lines on election day.
The poor, particularly in the impoverished northeast, are loyal to the PT thanks to landmark social programs that benefit 50 million people and have helped 40 million exit poverty in the past 12 years.
The country\’s elites are meanwhile exasperated with interventionist economic policies such as gasoline (petrol) price controls and high taxes.
The battle is for the newly teeming middle class in the industrialized southeast, the cradle of the million-strong protests last year.
This demographic is torn between voters loyal to the PT\’s transformative social policies and those frustrated with Rousseff\’s government.
"The country is divided, and whoever wins will need to reach out to the opposition," said Lourdes Casanova, an emerging markets specialist at Cornell University in New York state.
Voters are also electing governors in run-offs in 14 states where no candidate took more than 50 percent in the first round.
Polls open at 8:00 am (1000 GMT) and close at 5:00 pm (2200 GMT in the westernmost time zone).
Thanks to a sophisticated electronic voting system, the results are expected shortly after.
Voting is compulsory in Brazil, Latin America\’s largest democracy.
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