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Candidates neck-and-neck as presidential polls open in Brazil

Lincon Zarbietti, AFP | Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff (pictured left) and her opponent Aecio Neves (pictured right) were neck-and-neck ahead of Sunday's election

Brazil’s two presidential candidates, opposition hopeful Aecio Neves and leftist incumbent Dilma Rousseff, were neck-and-neck as voting opened in Sunday's runoff election.

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Final opinion polls gave

Rousseff

a narrow lead over

Neves

.

The vote is set to be one of the closest the country has seen in decades as Neves, a pro-business senator from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) who is promising to revive a stagnant economy, takes on Rousseff and the long-standing Workers’ Party (PT), who vows to protect social programs that have lifted millions from poverty.

On Saturday, the two candidates made the most of their final chance to sway some 10 percent of undecided voters at the close of what has often been a vitriolic, no-holds-barred campaign.

Rousseff, 66, a former guerrilla who was jailed and tortured for fighting Brazil's 1964-1985 dictatorship, spent the morning in her southern stronghold of Porto Alegre, where she was holding a march.

Neves, the business-world favorite, was meanwhile in his native state of Minas Gerais in the southeast to pay a visit to the grave of his grandfather Tancredo, a leading figure in the democratic transition who was elected president in 1985 but died before taking office.

The 54-year-old was later due to visit a Catholic church in the town of Sao Joao del Rei and give a press conference.

Tooth and nail

Rousseff, who was elected Brazil's first woman president in 2010, taking the reins from her popular Workers' Party mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has had to fight tooth and nail to re-emerge as the front-runner.

In the build-up to the October 5 first-round vote, she scrambled to fend off environmentalist Marina Silva, who took the polls by storm vowing to become the South American country's first "poor, black" president when she dramatically entered the race after her running mate Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash.

No sooner had the PT's electoral machine dispatched Silva – who exited the first round with 21 percent of the vote, to Rousseff's 42 percent and Neves's 34 percent – than the incumbent had to beat back Neves, who converted the momentum of his first-round comeback into a narrow lead.

With the candidates fighting for every vote in this sprawling country of 202 million people where voting is compulsory, the campaign took on a level of virulence not seen since the return to democracy in 1989.

‘Most sordid campaign in history’

Rousseff, who is known for her toughness, has accused Neves of nepotism when he was governor of Minas Gerais, played up a media report that he once hit his then-girlfriend in public and suggested he was driving "drunk or on drugs" when he refused to take a breathalyzer during a 2011 traffic stop.

Neves in turn has accused Rousseff of incompetently running the recession-hit economy and of "collusion" in a multi-billion-dollar kickback scandal at state oil giant Petrobras.

That charge returned to the fore on the eve of their final debate Friday when conservative news magazine Veja reported that Rousseff and Lula "knew everything" about the alleged embezzlement scheme, citing a shady money dealer accused in the case.

Neves opened the debate asking Rousseff about the report, which he called the culmination of " the most sordid campaign in history."

"Veja has presented no proof," Rousseff fired back, condemning the article as "slander and defamation" and repeating her vow to sue.

After the magazine's report, a small group of protesters invaded the publisher's headquarters, spray-painting "Veja lies" on the building and strewing trash at its gates, media reports said.

Social divide

Brazil is divided along social lines heading into the election.

The poor, particularly in the impoverished northeast, are loyal to the PT thanks to landmark social programs that benefit 50 million people and have helped lift 40 million from poverty in the past 12 years.

The country's elites are meanwhile exasperated with interventionist economic policies such as petrol price controls and high taxes.

Though Brazil’s economy saw substantial growth in the early years of Worker Party rule, its GDP growing by more than $1.5 trillion between 2003 and 2010, the country slipped back into recession earlier this year.

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

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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