AN unexpectedly close run-off campaign for Brazil’s presidency kicked off yesterday with leftist incumbent Dilma Rousseff and her pro-business rival Aecio Neves racing to secure the votes of supporters of an ousted third-place candidate and others frustrated with a stagnant economy.
Mr Neves, a former two-term state governor and senator who had been widely written off until the last few days of the campaign, rode on a late surge in support to take second place with 33.6 per cent in Sunday’s first round of voting.
He will face Ms Rousseff, who won 41.6 per cent support, in the run-off on 26 October.
The incumbent remains a slight favourite due to her enduring support among the poor, but Mr Neves is now within striking distance.
Both will now focus on the 21 per cent of voters who backed the other main candidate, environmentalist Marina Silva.
Her campaign collapsed in spectacular fashion late in the race, but she remains admired by many voters and could still swing the election with an endorsement.
The run-off will be a battle between opposing visions for development in Brazil: the state-led capitalism of the ruling Workers’ Party as it struggles to revive an economy that fell into recession in the first half of the year, and the market-friendly policies promised by Mr Neves and his centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, or PSDB.
The two parties have dominated politics since Brazil returned to democracy three decades ago and their electoral battles highlight class divisions in a country with one of the world’s biggest gaps between rich and poor.
The battle between the established parties has come as a disappointment to some voters who had hoped for change with Ms Silva’s candidacy
Ms Rousseff came out ahead in the first round of voting thanks to working-class supporters who are still grateful to her party for economic gains and for popular social welfare programmes it expanded upon coming to power 12 years ago.
Recent polls have given Ms Rousseff a lead of as much as eight percentage points over Mr Neves in a run-off, although he will have momentum after his unexpected comeback in Sunday’s first round.
“Brazil cannot go backwards,” Ms Rousseff said after the results were announced. “I clearly understood the message from the streets and from the ballot boxes. The majority of Brazilians want us to speed up the Brazil we are building.”
Senior PSDB officials were expected to meet with leaders of Ms Silva’s campaign yesterday to try to secure a formal endorsement from her.
The two camps shared broadly similar, market-friendly platforms and Ms Silva’s campaign chief, Walter Feldman, is a former PSDB leader with strong ties to the party.
Another Silva aide who wields huge influence with her, Eduardo Giannetti, said on Sunday night that he would support Mr Neves.
“I don’t think it would be good for Brazil to have four more years of [Ms Rousseff],” he said. “Now we have to re-establish confidence. Our best chance for that is with [Mr Neves].”
Ms Silva did not endorse any candidates when she came third in 2010’s presidential race, and could remain neutral again.
She has expressed frustration with both Ms Rousseff and Mr Neves for a wave of negative TV ads and other attacks that caused her support to fall during the campaign’s final days.
Voters also suggested that a stumbling performance by Ms Silva in the televised debates had led to a crumbling of support.
As well as choosing from 11 presidential candidates, voters selected state governors, congressmen, regional politicians and a third of the senate.
Former Brazilian football hero Romario was among those who gained a senate seat.