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Brazil election goes to the wire

Brazil is set to vote for a new president this Sunday (05.10.2014). The overriding question is which of the challengers will likely face incumbent Dilma Rousseff in a potential run-off.

Everything was better in the old days. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff herself was probably thinking just that at the start of this gripping election campaign. It began for her with poor poll ratings, and now - just before the election - it is still unclear who will run the vast South American country for the next four years. Rousseff isn't used to close races. In 2010, she was elected with an overwhelming majority, though she did face a run-off. But her victory was always as good as certain.

Now things look very different. With Brazilians about to enter the polling booths, Rousseff's ratings are climbing again, but no one knows if she would win in a run-off. Should Rousseff fail to get the required 52 percent in the first round of voting, she will have to compete against the candidate with the second-highest result.

Aecio Neves und Marina Silva

Aecio Neves (left) and Marina Silva are Rousseff's biggest rivals

And even then, things will be tense, because no one knows who Rousseff would face in the run-off? Of the 11 presidential candidates, Aécio Neves of the social democratic PSDB party and former Environment Minister Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) represent Rousseff's biggest challengers. Current polls say that the two candidates would have equal chances against Rousseff.

Emotional campaign

"Dilma Rousseff, Marina Silva, and Aécio Neves have been the protagonists of the most emotional first presidential election since 1989," wrote political scientist Murillo de Aragao in his blog on the Globo website. With the countdown almost over, the opinion polls are still fluctuating, reflecting the political rollercoaster the country is riding.

The sudden death of PSB candidate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash in mid-August interrupted the campaign initially. He was replaced by Marina Silva, whose poll ratings briefly went through the roof as she profited from emotional media reports. For a while she was significantly more popular than Rousseff.

Anyone but Dilma

After twelve years of her rule, many Brazilians want the country to go in a new direction, and seem prepared to go with "anyone but Dilma." That also explains the high approval ratings for Marina Silva and Aécio Neves - in the event of a run-off, many Neves voters are expected to shift to Silva, and vice versa.

But the incumbent still enjoys more support from those with less to live on. Traditionally, her Workers' Party (PT) wins the majority of its votes in the poor northeast of the country. The social programs that Rousseff's predecessor Lula da Silva initiated have already helped many people escape extreme poverty.

Aécio Neves has also recognized that no one becomes Brazilian president without offering social programs. He has promised to continue Rousseff's policies - though with some amendments. In order to distance himself from Rousseff, he often points to Brazil's current economic situation. Growth is stagnating and even shrinking at the moment.

Brasilien Präsidentschaftswahl Dilma Rousseff 02.09.2014

Workers' leader Luna (right) supports Rousseff

Marina Silva, meanwhile, is trying to win over the population with what she calls a "new kind of politics." She publicly speaks out against corruption and insists that she is not a politician in order to seize power, but because of her deep faith in her policies. Her fame in Brazil is mostly down to her past as an environmental activist and minister.

'The campaign has been electrifying'

All three candidates gave a passionate performance in the last TV debate before polling day, broadcast by the Globo network. The tensions generated by the campaign were clearly visible with aggressive accusations coming from all sides.

"The next three days will be electrifying," wrote Eliane Cantanhêde, of the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper, in her column last week. "But the 21 days afterwards won't be any different." The run-off vote is set for October 26. That's when the final decision will probably be made - and a lot could happen before then.

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