Brazil presidential elections: Dilma Rousseff faces run-off against rival Aecio Neves

Pro-business Neves rode a dramatic late surge of support on Sunday

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The Independent US

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff faces a tough election runoff against her pro-business rival, Aecio Neves, after he rode a dramatic late surge and won strong support in the first round of voting on Sunday.

Neves, a former two-term state governor and senator who had been widely written off until the last few days of the campaign, took second place with 33.6 percent of the vote and now faces the leftist Rousseff in the runoff on Oct. 26.

Rousseff won 41.6 percent support and remains a slight favorite but Neves is within striking distance and will pick up support from voters who had backed other anti-government candidates.

The runoff campaign 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 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 struggling with a huge gap between haves and have-nots.

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 popular social welfare programs it expanded since it came to power 12 years ago.

Recent polls have given Rousseff an edge over Neves in a runoff, with an advantage of as much as 8 percentage points, although Neves will have momentum on his side after his showing on Sunday.

"Brazil cannot go backwards," Rousseff said as she celebrated her first-place finish. "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."

Neves, however, will likely pick up support from many of the voters who backed Marina Silva, a prominent environmentalist who entered the race late and led opinion polls but fell away in the final days. She came in third with 21.3 percent of the vote.

After mass protests last year illustrated growing discontent over ills ranging from corruption to poor public services, Silva and Neves wooed a grab-bag of anti-Rousseff voters.

Silva stopped just shy of endorsing Neves on Sunday night.

"There is no way to misinterpret the sentiment of voters, of the 60 percent who moved for change," she said.

With the economy in its fourth year of slow growth following a sustained boom during much of the previous decade, Rousseffis vulnerable. And Neves, having clawed back from a distant third place in polls earlier in the campaign, enjoys newfound vigor.

"He is now a difficult adversary," said Andre Cesar, a political analyst in Brasilia. "He gained force and drive when he got back in the race."

To win, Neves will have to convince voters that his promise to jumpstart the economy won't come at the expense of social programs, especially a popular monthly stipend that low-income families receive in exchange for keeping their kids in school.

Neves, 54, has vowed to keep the programs, which have become a symbol of Workers' Party rule even though they were first implemented by the PSDB.

Late on Sunday, he promised "the best project for Brazil" and said he represents "Brazilians who want the country growing again, generating jobs and improving the lives of people."