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Brazil's president sees off ex-maid and 'smooth operator' to win first-round vote

Dilma Rousseff won the first-round election last night and now faces a run-off against her centre-right opponent.

Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff
Image: AP/Press Association Images

BRAZIL’S LEFTIST PRESIDENT Dilma Rousseff won a first-round election Sunday and will face business favorite Aecio Neves in what is shaping up to be a hard-fought run-off.

With nearly all ballots counted, Rousseff had 41 per cent of the vote and Neves 34 per cent, leaving popular environmentalist Marina Silva — who once looked set to become Brazil’s first black president — relegated with 21 per cent.

The incumbent, who is looking to win a second four-year term and extend 12 years of Workers’ Party (PT) government, is the favourite three weeks out from the 26 October run-off.

But Neves, an ex-governor with a reputation as a smooth operator, has momentum in his favour after fending off the once unstoppable-looking Silva and finishing the first round well above the 27 per cent support pollsters had given him on the eve of the vote.

After a campaign packed with all the twists and turns of a telenovela — a candidate’s death in a fiery plane crash, a poor maid’s rise to the cusp of the presidency, a seedy oil scandal — the election produced a traditional-looking second round between the two parties that have led the world’s seventh-largest economy for the past 20 years.

But Neves (below), the scion of a powerful political family, vowed to carry the mantle of “change” – the buzzword of the campaign after four years of economic slowdown, corruption allegations, frustration with poor public services and record spending to host the World Cup.

Brazil Elections Source: AP/Press Association Images

He made an emotional appeal to Silva’s Socialist party supporters, whose electoral race was thrown into turmoil on August 13 when their original candidate, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash.

Silva, his runningmate, took Campos’s place and initially leapt in the polls with her broad-based appeal.

But despite her compelling personal story — a one-time maid, she rose from illiteracy and poverty to become a respected conservation activist, senator and environment minister — she lost steam in the last month of the campaign.

Neves paid warm tribute to Campos and told Socialist voters: “It’s time to unite our forces.”

But Silva (below), a former PT stalwart who remains close with some in the party, did not rush to endorse anyone.

“Brazil has clearly signaled it is not for the status quo,” she said.

“We have an alliance with various parties and will take a decision jointly, maintaining what unites us — our program.”

Brazil Elections Source: AP/Press Association Images

Rousseff for her part said four more years of PT rule was the best path to change.

“The Brazilian people want ever more advances and say they see the program I represent as the most legitimate and trustworthy force for change,” she said, vowing to win the second round.

The election, the closest in a generation for Latin America’s largest democracy, is widely seen as a referendum on PT rule.

The party endeared itself to the masses with landmark social programs and an economic boom in the 2000s that have lifted 40 million Brazilians from poverty, increased wages and brought unemployment to a near-record low.

But Rousseff, 66, has presided over rising inflation and, since January, a recession, as well as million-strong protests last year against corruption and poor education, health care and transport.

Rousseff (below), a former guerrilla who was jailed and tortured for fighting the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, has also been battered in recent weeks by a corruption scandal implicating dozens of politicians — mainly her allies — at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

Brazil Elections Source: AP/Press Association Images

All the main candidates vowed to protect the PT’s popular welfare programs.

But Neves sharply condemned Rousseff’s handling of the economy, accusing her and her popular PT predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of frightening off investors and “demonising” the idea of public-private partnership.

Political analyst Andre Cesar predicted a close second round.

“Neves, who looked condemned to the shadows a month ago in the face of Silva and Rousseff’s dominance in the polls, arose from the ashes and surprised with a much better score than expected,” he said.

“That means he arrives much stronger for the second round, which will be fought vote by vote.”

Besides choosing their next president, voters also elected 27 governors, 513 congressmen and 1,069 regional lawmakers, as well as a third of the senate — with a total of more than 26,000 candidates to choose from.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: ‘Barack Obama’ is running for office in Brazil

Read: Brazilian presidential candidate dies after plane crashes in residential area

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