Race to reach Brazil runoff vote goes down to wire

Brazil’s presidential election took another dramatic turn Saturday on the eve of the first-round vote as the final opinion poll showed popular environmentalist Marina Silva losing her second-place spot.

Silva, who once looked set to be Brazil’s next president after replacing late Socialist Eduardo Campos following his death in a plane crash, slipped to third behind incumbent Dilma Rousseff and Social Democrat Aecio Neves in the survey by the National Transport Confederation (CNT).

The poll, the last before Sunday’s first-round vote, gave Rousseff 40.6 percent, Neves 24 percent and Silva 21.4 percent.

But the gap between business sector favorite Neves and popular environmentalist Silva was within the margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.

In a prospective second round, the CNT had Rousseff defeating Neves 46 percent to 40.8 percent, with the remaining voters either undecided or spoiling their ballots, in a country where voting is mandatory.

In a run-off between Rousseff and Silva, the incumbent would win 47.6 percent to 37.9 percent, it found.

The election, set to be the closest in a generation, is widely seen as a referendum on 12 years of government by Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT).

The vast country is divided between voters loyal to the PT for an economic boom that lifted millions from poverty in the 2000s and those calling for an end to the corruption scandals, poor public services and four years of disappointing growth tainting Rousseff.

For months Rousseff, 66, a former guerrilla who was jailed and tortured for fighting the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, looked likely to coast to an easy victory.

But the race was dramatically upended in August when then third place candidate Campos of the Socialist Party was killed in a plane crash.

The proponents of change are now split between Silva, 56, who surged in the polls when she replaced her late running mate atop the Socialist ticket, and Aecio Neves, 54, from the powerful Social Democratic Party (PSDB), which ruled the country from 1995 to 2002.

Silva, who belongs to Brazil’s surging Evangelical Christian community and says she wants to be the diverse country’s first “poor, black president,” was initially projected to beat Rousseff in a runoff but has now slipped back into the spot Campos occupied before his death.

Neves has meanwhile closed the 20-percentage-point gap that separated him from Silva barely a month ago, reemerging as a viable contender to face Rousseff in the second round on October 26.

– ‘Plebiscite’ –

Silva, a former PT environment minister who jumped to the Greens then made a failed bid to launch her own party before joining the Socialists — a path criticized as fickle by detractors — is due to hold a final rally Saturday in Sao Paulo state before traveling to cast her ballot in Acre in the Amazon, where she grew up in a family of poor rubber-tappers.

Neves has three rallies scheduled in his stronghold Minas Gerais, where he served two terms as governor.

Rousseff for her part will give speeches to PT supporters in the cities of Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre.

PT social programs have helped 40 million Brazilians escape poverty in the past 12 years, a transformation that has endeared the party to the masses and still evokes warmth for Rousseff’s charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

But Rousseff has presided over an economic slowdown and, as of January, a recession, as well as million-strong protests last year against corruption and poor education, healthcare and transport.

She has also been battered in recent weeks by a corruption scandal implicating dozens of politicians — mainly her allies — at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.

“It’s almost a plebiscite on the PT’s 12 years in power,” Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst with Eurasia Group, said of the polls.

“There is a desire for change with people — especially the better-off — all wanting economic improvements, but at the same time there is a desire to retain the PT’s social policy achievements.”

Voters will also elect 27 state governors, 513 congressmen and 1,069 regional lawmakers, as well as a third of the senate.

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