Rousseff narrow favorite as Brazilians turn out to vote

AFP , Sunday 26 Oct 2014

Brazilians voted Sunday for the next leader of the world's seventh-largest economy, with opinion polls narrowly favoring President Dilma Rousseff after a topsy-turvy and bitter campaign.

Some 143 million people are choosing between leftist incumbent Rousseff and Social Democrat Aecio Neves, scion of a famous political family.

Polls gave Rousseff between a four- and six-percent lead, though the election remained too close to call.

The winner will face a declining economy in recession and rising inflation which has broken the government's own target ceiling of 6.5 percent.

They will also have to deal with public frustration over shoddy public services and endemic corruption.

"We are voting for a more equal Brazil with more opportunities," said Rousseff, the country's first woman president, as she cast her vote in the southern city of Porto Alegre, sipping on a cup of local mate tea.

Polls opened at 1000 GMT -- although registered expatriates as far away as Australia, Japan and New Zealand were able to cast their ballots overnight.

"People are called to choose between two projects," said Rousseff, a former guerrilla once jailed and tortured by the country's 1964-1985 military regime.

"Ours is to ensure Brazil continues to grow with more health and education."

Neves, accompanied by his wife who recently gave him baby twins, meanwhile gave V for victory signs as he cast his ballot more than two hours after polls opened in Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state which he once governed.

"Change has already begun," he tweeted optimistically.

Voters slammed corruption -- but drew different conclusions.

"I am voting for Neves. We are fed up with corruption scandals," Roberto Carlos da Silva, a 34-year-old doctor in a chic Sao Paulo suburb, told AFP.

Teacher Rita Zaevedo, 51, backed Rousseff, in contrast.

"I still believe in the PT as they slashed poverty. The whole political system is corrupt -- not just one party," she insisted.

Joao Vera Mirim, an ethnic Guarani Indian chief aged 102, grumbled the PT had not done enough for his community at Angra dos Reis, some three hours west of Rio de Janeiro.

"They don't do enough for indigenous people. Nobody knows how much we are suffering. I have backed Rousseff and (predecessor) Lula and I'm still waiting for a gesture," he told AFP.

Sunday's vote amid tight security was widely seen as a referendum on 12 years of government under Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT) -- eight under working-class hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and four under Rousseff.

Landmark social programs lifting some 40 million people from poverty have earned the PT solid working and lower middle class support, wages have risen and unemployment has fallen to a record-low 4.9 percent.

But, even before the current recession, Rousseff, 66, faced massive protests last year against corruption, World Cup spending and poor public services.

Business world favorite Neves -- a 54-year-old senator and the grandson of the man elected Brazil's first post-dictatorship president -- says Brazil's economy is going nowhere under Rousseff, pointing to four years of low growth and rising prices.

Rousseff must also ride out a multi-billion-dollar embezzlement scandal implicating dozens of politicians -- mainly her allies -- at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

Rightwing news magazine Veja on Friday quoted a suspect in the case as saying Rousseff and Lula personally knew of the scam. She roundly denied the claim and threatened to sue.

In an acrimonious campaign, Rousseff accused Neves of nepotism while he was governor of Minas Gerais state, then played up a report he once hit his then-girlfriend in public.

To triumph, Neves must win over the bulk of those who backed environmentalist Marina Silva, eliminated in the October 5 first round and who has endorsed him.

Rousseff outscored Neves by eight percent in the first round but they are both fighting for every vote in the continent-sized nation of 202 million people.

The country is deeply divided along social lines.

The key battleground is for votes in the industrialized southeast, the cradle of the million-strong protests last year where a growing middle class is making ever-louder demands.

Brazilian authorities deployed 35,000 military police in Rio de Janeiro ahead of the vote after attacks on police and clashes between drug gangs, and the army beefed up security in cities nationwide.

Sunday also saw voters also electing governors in run-offs in 14 states.

Results are expected shortly after the 2000 GMT close, thanks to a sophisticated electronic voting system.

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