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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Brazilians narrowly voted leftist President Dilma Rousseff back into office on Sunday after a virulent election campaign that split Latin America’s biggest economy between poor north and richer south.
Ms Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president, went into the run-off contest as slight favourite and defeated center-right challenger Aecio Neves by around three million votes.
With 99 per cent of votes counted, she had won a 51.52 per cent vote share to 48.48 per cent to Mr Neves, the business world favourite. “Thank you very much,” Ms Rousseff, 66, tweeted as it became clear she had won.
The race to lead the world’s seventh-largest economy was seen as a referendum on 12 years of government by the Workers’ Party (PT) – eight under working-class hero Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and four under Ms Rousseff, with voters weighing the PT’s social legacy against Mr Neves’s promise of economic revival.
The bitterness of the campaign, the most vitriolic since democracy was restored in 1985 after two decades of military rule, threatens to leave the country sorely divided.
The PT endeared itself to the masses with landmark social programs that have lifted millions from poverty, increased wages and brought unemployment to a record-low 4.9 per cent.
But the outlook has darkened since Ms Rousseff first took office in 2010, the year economic growth peaked at 7.5 per cent.
She has presided over rising inflation and a recession this year, amid protests against corruption, record spending on the World Cup and poor public education, health care and transport.
Mr Neves vowed to reboot the economy with market-friendly policies while safeguarding the PT’s social programmes.
But Ms Rousseff’s supporters cast him as a fat cat who will govern for the upper class and that view looked to have prevailed, Mark Weisbrot of the US Centre for Economic and Policy Research told AFP, saying Mr Neves’ more liberal plans would not have guaranteed badly needed investment.
“It may seem like ‘the markets’ are demanding such things, but if they ever got them, they would not react well at all,” said Mr Weisbrot, citing the experience of the Eurozone, where “the markets” had demanded austerity. “The resulting triple-dip recession did not attract investment – rather it repelled investment,” Mr Weisbrot said.
Ms Rousseff cast her ballot in Porto Alegre, the southern city where she grew up.
“We are voting for a more equal Brazil with more opportunities,” Ms Rousseff said.
Mr Neves, 54, gave V for victory signs as he cast his ballot in Belo Horizonte, where he served two terms as governor of Minas Gerais state, insisting that “change has already begun.”
Despite support for her social policies, Ms Rousseff has been hit by corruption scandals, especially a multi-billion-dollar embezzlement scheme implicating dozens of politicians – mainly her allies – at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
As the fiery campaign wrapped up, conservative news magazine Veja quoted a suspect in the case as saying Ms Rousseff and Mr Lula personally knew of the scam – a claim the president vehemently denied.
But the issue will dog her, said independent consultant Andre Cesar. “If the allegations are confirmed that could spark a political crisis,” Mr Cesar told AFP.
The graft issue swayed some, but not others. “I am voting for Neves. We are fed up with corruption scandals,” Roberto Carlos da Silva, a 34-year-old doctor in a chic Sao Paulo suburb, told AFP.
But civil servant Maria de Fatima de Oliveira Borges from Brasilia said: “I’m voting for the PT because I believe in its project of social change.” The campaign has been a fierce battle for Ms Rousseff, a former guerrilla once jailed and tortured for fighting the country’s 1964-1985 military regime.
First, she had to fend off environmentalist Marina Silva, who exited the first round three weeks ago with 21 per cent of the vote to 42 per cent for Ms Rousseff and 34 per cent for Mr Neves.
Ms Silva then endorsed Mr Neves, whose comeback briefly lifted him into first place – and prompted a furious Rousseff counter-attack.
She accused Mr Neves of nepotism as Minas Gerais governor and played up a report that he once hit his then-girlfriend in public.
Mr Neves, the grandson of the man elected Brazil’s first post-dictatorship president, responded by accusing Ms Rousseff of lying and “collusion” in the Petrobras kickbacks.
As well as their president, voters also elected governors in run-offs in 14 states, with Luiz Fernando Pezao of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) – a Rousseff coalition ally – winning in Rio de Janeiro.
Nationwide 281 people were arrested for election-related “irregularities” – one for taking a “selfie” in the poll booth in Sao Paulo state, while two buses were set on fire in the same state.