5 de octubre de 2014 / 12:38 / hace 3 años

UPDATE 4-Brazilians voting in nail-biter election for president

(Adds Lula comment on Neves, details on voting machines)

By Paulo Prada and Caroline Stauffer

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Voters across Brazil cast ballots on Sunday in an unpredictable election that will decide whether Latin America’s largest economy adopts a more free-market approach after 12 years of leftist Workers’ Party rule.

As President Dilma Rousseff seeks a second term, voters are weighing whether progress rescuing millions from poverty is enough to reject challenges from a popular environmentalist and a pro-business social democrat. Both her opponents promise to jump-start the economy after four years of lackluster growth.

Polls show Rousseff as the frontrunner in a race that is likely to go to a runoff on Oct. 26, following one of the most competitive campaigns since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985. The death of one candidate, the unexpected surge of another and Rousseff’s fierce efforts to claw back into the lead have contributed to a nail-biter election as uncertain as the course of the country itself.

Rousseff’s main rivals are Marina Silva, a hero of the global conservation movement and ruling party defector now with the Brazilian Socialist Party, and Aecio Neves, a senator and former state governor from the centrist party that laid the groundwork for Brazil’s economic boom over the last decade.

The two opposition candidates, in a last-minute sprint for runner-up, promise to return to the market-friendly economic policies that critics say Rousseff abandoned, especially strict budget and inflation targets. They also vow to restore order to big, state-run banks and companies that have been subject to political intervention and corruption scandals.

“There are two views of what this election is about. Some are more worried about the economy and others are more worried about social welfare,” Diego Brigido, a 29-year-old engineer, said after casting his ballot in Rio de Janeiro. “I‘m more worried about the economy.”

Three polls on Saturday showed Neves, who trailed Silva for weeks, may have built up enough momentum in the final days to advance to a runoff against Rousseff.

Senior members of the Workers’ Party and Neves’ Brazilian Social Democracy Party, the only two parties to govern Brazil since 1994, said on Sunday they expected Neves to face Rousseff in a second round.

“I think it will be Aecio in the runoff,” said former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor. “When there are two major political forces you can’t invent a candidacy at the last minute.”

Rousseff, wearing her party’s signature red, voted shortly after polls opened in the southern city of Porto Alegre, where she lived and rose in the state bureaucracy in the 1990s. Silva voted in the Amazon state of Acre, where she was born into a family of poor rubber tappers, while Neves cast his ballot in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the southeastern state he governed before serving in the Senate.

RULING PARTY SUPPORT

Rousseff counts on a bedrock of support among the working class, thanks to generous social welfare programs expanded during the two terms of her hugely popular predecessor.

“What’s at stake is continuity,” said Ana Augusta de Medeiros, a 71-year-old voter in Rio who praised the ruling party’s efforts to fight poverty. “I hope they will continue working on behalf of the poor.”

Even after mass protests a year ago, driven by anger over corruption and poor public services, Rousseff remains the favorite, helped by a barrage of negative campaigning that eroded an early lead by Silva and low unemployment defying the economic slowdown.

Rousseff might even eke out a first-round victory, although no poll has shown her clearing the 50 percent support needed to win the election outright on Sunday. The numbers for a runoff are tighter, but also give Rousseff an edge.

During Brazil’s boom under Lula, fueled by soaring commodity exports to China, the economy grew by an average of more than 4 percent a year, lifting more than 30 million people from poverty. Now the economy, which dipped into recession last quarter, is on track to grow less than 2 percent a year by the end of Rousseff’s term in December.

The slowing economy and a desire among many for new leadership have fueled the support for Rousseff’s rivals.

“Dilma already tried. The things that she promised she did not complete,” said Rosilene Silva de Jesus, 29, who voted for Silva in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city and financial capital.

More than 140 million people are registered to vote in Brazil, where everyone between the ages of 18 and 70 is required to cast a ballot. Voting is computerized, meaning results are expected just a few hours after polls close in western states, though problems with biometric identification at voting machines in the federal district could delay the end of voting there.

Because of the tight race, campaigning has been noisier than usual in a country where the electoral process at times feels more like a carnival.

Candidates employ armies of pamphleteers and flag-wavers at street corners, while campaign jingles, often composed by celebrity musicians, blast from sound cars and televisions.

This year’s frenzy was disrupted in August, when Eduardo Campos, the original Socialist Party candidate for president, died in a plane crash. After a week of mourning, the race was upended when Silva, who had been his running mate, took his place and soared in the polls. (Additional reporting by Marta Nogueira, Anna Flavia Rochas and Felipe Pontes; Editing by Todd Benson, Frances Kerry and Chizu Nomiyama)

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