POLITICS

Rousseff v Neves: Brazilians vote for new president after bitter campaign

Brazil's incumbent President and Workers Party presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff, right, and challenger Aecio Neves, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, shake hands at the start of their presidential debate, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. Rousseff and Neves are in a tight election contest, that culminates Sunday when millions of Brazilians are expected to go to the polls and decide who'll be the next leader of Latin America's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Brazil's incumbent President and Workers Party presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff, right, and challenger Aecio Neves, presidential candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, shake hands at the start of their presidential debate, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. Rousseff and Neves are in a tight election contest, that culminates Sunday when millions of Brazilians are expected to go to the polls and decide who'll be the next leader of Latin America's biggest economy. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

President Dilma Rousseff is counting on Brazilians' gratefulness for a decade of progress to overcome concerns about a sluggish economy as the leftist leader seeks re-election on Sunday after a bitter, unpredictable campaign.

Rousseff held a slight lead in one major poll over her center-right opponent, Aecio Neves, but the two were deadlocked in another.

The choice between Rousseff and Neves has split Brazilians into two camps — those who think only the president will continue to protect the poor and advance social inclusion versus those who are certain that only the contender's market-friendly economic policies can see Brazil return to solid growth.

The Workers' Party's 12 years in power have seen a profound transformation in Brazil, as it expanded social welfare programs to help lift millions of people from poverty and into the middle class. But four straight years of weak economic growth under Rousseff, with an economy that's now in a technical recession, has some worried those gains are under threat.

"Brazilians want it all. They are worried about the economy being sluggish and stagnant but they want to preserve social gains that have been made," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "The question is which candidate is best equipped to deliver both of those."

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Rousseff and Neves have fought bitterly to convince voters that they can deliver on both growth and social advances. This year's campaign is widely considered the most acrimonious since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985, a battle between the only two parties to have held the presidency since 1995.

Neves has hammered at Rousseff over a widening kickback scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras, with an informant telling investigators that the Workers' Party directly benefited from the scheme.

Rousseff has rejected those allegations and told Brazilians that a vote for Neves would be support for returning Brazil to times of intense economic turbulence, hyperinflation and high unemployment, which the nation encountered when the Social Democrats last held power.

"We've worked so hard to better the lives of the people, and we won't let anything in this world, not even in this crisis nor all the pessimism, take away what they've conquered," Rousseff said before voting in southern Brazil.

In Rio, 43-year-old lifeguard Marcelo Barbosa dos Santos voted in the Botafogo neighborhood and said he's been a Rousseff backer from the beginning.

"Many things changed for the better during Dilma's administration," he said. "The poor have seen our lives improved and we want that to continue."

But Paula Canongia, a 34-year-old hotel owner, said she voted for Neves because of "the current state of our country."

"He's not an ideal candidate, far from it ... but we desperately need change and hopefully he can provide that," she said.

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