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Brazil’s ‘most unpredictable election since return to democracy’

AFP | Brazilian presidential candidates Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves

An acrimonious and volatile presidential race has entered its final stretch in Brazil, with left-wing incumbent Dilma Rousseff and conservative challenger Aecio Neves running neck and neck ahead of a run-off.

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Over 140 million Brazilians will be voting on Sunday, with Rousseff of the Worker’s Party (PT) fighting to win a second term and Neves desperate to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat at the ballot box for his centre-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB).

Rousseff appears to have regained the momentum just days ahead of the October 26 election, after opinion polls showed she had slipped behind Neves last week.

Brazilian polling firm Datafolha revealed on Wednesday that Rousseff was on track to win 52 percent of the votes that will be cast on Sunday, with Neves set to claim 48 percent support – a margin within the study’s margin of error.

“This election has been marked by unusual political vulnerability,” said Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It’s been the most unpredictable election since the return of democratic elections in 1989 and will remain unpredictable until the end.”

Uncertainty over the outcome has been heightened after pollsters’ stark failure to predict the results of the first round of the election on October 5. Their surveys overestimated Rousseff’s lead sometimes by as much as 10 points, and wrongly predicted Neves would be squeezed out of the runoff by Socialist Party candidate Marina Silva.

A particularly rancorous campaign between Rousseff, 66, and Neves, 54, is therefore set to end with a photo finish – one that could force their respective camps to ask difficult questions about their futures.

The right candidate

Brazil’s strongest party following the dark years of military rule, the PSDB is credited for reining in the country’s runaway inflation in early 1990s. But then it watched from the sidelines as Brazil enjoyed an economic fiesta under PT president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s two terms in office.

Between 2003, when Lula da Silva took office, and 2010, Brazil’s GDP grew by more than $1.5 trillion by harnessing the country’s vast natural resources.

The PSDB lost a third-straight election in 2010, powerless against massively popular Lula da Silva’s hand-picked candidate, Rousseff.

According to the Wilson Center’s Sotero, the PSDB has found in Neves a candidate strong enough to finally bring the Lula-Rousseff era to a close.

“Neves is younger than past PSDB candidates. He has a lot of experience, but he is also energetic and connects with people. Listening to other PSDB leaders sometimes felt like being in a sociology class, you know, boring,” the Brazilian analyst joked.

Sotero agreed that Sunday’s election was easily the PSDB’s best shot at reclaiming the presidency since Lula da Silva pushed them out of the Planalto Palace in Brasilia 12 years ago.

Neves, who was polling as little as 14 percent support in early September, has become the revelation of the race. But a loss would, in many ways, take the PSDB back to square one.

Life after Lula?

A defeat could be even more devastating for the ruling Worker’s Party.

The left-wing party would leave with heads held high, after presiding over a decade in which 36 million Brazilians were raised out of poverty in a country of around 200 million people. They would also have to pack up blame for mismanaging the economy and allowing the country to slip into recession earlier this year.

Unemployment remains at historic lows, but the International Monetary Fund recently projected Brazil’s economy would grow by just 1.4 percent next year, only behind Argentina and Venezuela among South American economies.

Voters impatient with the slowdown could punish Rousseff at the ballot box, and send the PT scrambling to find a new leader to rally around.

The current campaign has been full of speculation about an eventual Lula da Silva comeback in four year’s time, and a Rousseff defeat on Sunday would only intensify the guessing game.

Sotero points out that Lula da Silva, who survived throat cancer last year, will be turning 73 when the next presidential election rolls around, and that within the PT there seems to be no obvious successor to lead the party he founded.

“The question is, without Lula, what’s left of the PT?” Sotero asked.

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