Dilma Rousseff narrowly wins Brazil re-election

Dilma Rousseff narrowly wins Brazil re-election

RIO DE JANEIRO - Agence France-Presse
Dilma Rousseff narrowly wins Brazil re-election

Brazil's President and Workers' Party presidential candidate Rousseff celebrates after disclosure of the election results, in Brasilia Oct. 26. REUTERS Photo

Brazilians narrowly voted leftist President Dilma Rousseff back into office Oct. 26 for a second term after a bitter election campaign that split Latin America's biggest economy largely between the poor north and richer south.

Rousseff, Brazil's first woman president, went into the run-off as slight favorite - despite overseeing economic recession - and defeated center-right challenger Aecio Neves by three million ballots for a vote share of 51.6 percent after 99 percent of the count.

Handsomely ahead in the north, Rousseff crucially picked up enough middle-class votes in the more prosperous southeast to cement a fourth straight win for her Workers Party (PT).

The 66-year-old daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant businessman immediately vowed to work for political reform through dialogue and to give Brazil the change she said she recognized voters wanted.

"The most important reform is political. This president is open to dialogue. This is the top priority of my second mandate," Rousseff, standing alongside two-term predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, told ecstatic supporters in the capital Brasilia.

After four years of sluggish economic growth culminating in recession, she admitted her own report card had to improve and vowed to combat corruption.

"I want to be a much better president than I have been to date," she told the rally, issuing "a call for peace and unity" after a vitriolic campaign of low blows and mutual recriminations.

The campaign was the most bitter since democracy was restored in 1985 after two decades of military rule in Brazil.

In defeat, Neves said the "overriding priority is to unite Brazil around an honorable program worthy of all Brazilians."       

Corruption and World Cup spending

The race to lead the world's seventh-largest economy was seen as a referendum on 12 years of PT government with voters weighing the PT's social legacy against Neves's promise of economic revival through less interventionism.

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 percent.

But the outlook has darkened since Rousseff first took office in 2010, the year economic growth peaked at 7.5 percent.

She has presided over rising inflation and a recession this year, amid protests against corruption, record spending on the World Cup and poor public services.

Neves had vowed to reboot the economy with market-friendly policies while safeguarding the PT's social programs.

But Rousseff's supporters cast him as a fat cat who would govern for the upper class and that view just prevailed, Mark Weisbrot of the U.S. Center for Economic and Policy Research indicated to AFP, saying 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 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," Weisbrot said prior to the result.

Rousseff cast her ballot in Porto Alegre, the southern city where she grew up while Neves, 54, voted in Belo Horizonte, where he served two terms as governor of Minas Gerais state.

An old adage in Brazil is that whoever wins the state wins Brazil -- and Rousseff duly topped the poll there.

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 ended, conservative news magazine Veja quoted a suspect in the case as saying Rousseff and 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," Cesar told AFP.

The campaign has been a fierce battle for Rousseff, a former guerrilla once jailed and tortured for fighting the country's 1964-1985 military regime.

In the first round she had to fend off environmentalist Marina Silva, then saw Neves briefly top opinion polls having trailed her by eight percent in the opening round.

Silva endorsed Neves for the run-off, prompting a furious Rousseff counter-attack which saw her accuse Neves of nepotism in Minas Gerais. She also played up a report that he once hit his then-girlfriend in public.

Neves, the grandson of the man elected Brazil's first post-dictatorship president, responded by accusing 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 451 people were detained for election-related "irregularities" - one for taking a "selfie" in a poll booth in Sao Paulo state, while two buses were set on fire in the same state.