Battle to win home of Brazil's president, challenger heats up in bellwether state

Brazil's deadlocked presidential race is the most heated since the nation returned to democracy, and nowhere is the battle more bare-knuckled than in the state where both candidates were born.

Minas Gerais, which has produced more presidents than any other state in the globe's fifth-largest nation, is key to whether incumbent Dilma Rousseff gets another four years in office or if challenger Aecio Neves returns the presidency to the Brazil's main opposition party after more than a decade in the wilderness.

Because Minas Gerais is also the country's second most populous state with about 20.5 million of Brazil's 203.3 people, the nation's vote for president on Sunday hinges in large part on its voters.

"It's the Ohio of Brazil," said Mauricio Moura, a Brazilian pollster and professor of political strategy at George Washington University. "Brazil has never elected a president who didn't win in Minas Gerais."

Minas Gerais is also decisive because of a diverse political makeup that mirrors Brazil overall. There is heavy support for Neves' center-right party in wealthier parts of the capital and the south, and backing for Rousseff's Workers' Party in the poorer areas in the north and west that rely more on federal government social programs such as subsidized housing loans and a cash transfer arrangement paying families to ensure their children stay in school.

In first-round voting on Oct. 5 Rousseff took just over 43 percent of the state's votes to Neves' nearly 40 percent, even though Neves served two terms as governor of Minas Gerais and left office in 2010 with a 92-percent approval rating.

Since that first vote, both campaigns have sharply focused on the state. In a sign of the growing acrimony, debate on the wide, palm tree-dotted streets of Belo Horizonte, long known for its impeccably polite citizens, has turned nasty.

Rousseff supporters have revived five-year-old, unproven media accusations that Neves pushed and hit his then-girlfriend and now wife, Leticia. The couple denies the episode ever happened.

Neves' detractors also criticize him for building a $7 million regional airport on land his uncle owned in Minas Gerais. The candidate says procedures were correctly followed and auditors have found nothing wrong with the choice of land.

The political mentor of the 66-year-old Rousseff, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, alluded to the alleged incident involving Neves and his wife while leading a rally in Belo Horizonte last weekend. He also used the term "daddy's boy" to refer to the political pedigree and family wealth of the 54-year-old Neves, whose grandfather Tancredo Neves was elected in 1985 to be Brazil's first president after the 21-year military dictatorship, but died a day before taking office.

"You can vote for whomever you want," a man's voice boomed from the giant speakers on a Rousseff campaign truck recently crawling through the streets of Belo Horizonte, a colonial city of about 2.4 million and the Minas Gerais state capital. "But do you want a man who beats his wife and built an airport for his uncle? It's your choice, but I am just saying."

As the sound truck bearing Rousseff campaign banners rolled around Belo Horizonte insulting Neves, pedestrians stared and people stepped out of hair salons and other businesses to wave their hands and shake their heads in disapproval. Some made obscene gestures.

"They are terrified of losing power and they are scared," said Rafael Oliveira, a Neves supporter distributing flyers on the street.

But those Neves supporters seem just as desperate to woo undecided voters and the 14 percent of the electorate who cast first-round ballots for Marina Silva, the former environment minister since eliminated from the race. Silva now backs Neves.

At a Neves support rally in downtown Belo Horizonte last week, speakers called Rousseff a "fascist" and "terrorist" — an apparent reference to her time as a youthful Marxist guerrilla in an armed organization that fought against Brazil's military regime. Rousseff has long maintained that she personally never participated in violent acts back then.

They also questioned the strength of Rousseff's ties to Minas Gerais, noting she started her career as a bureaucrat in another state. Rousseff has said she only left her home state for a new start after being imprisoned and tortured for three year during the military junta.

The rough campaigning has demonstrated the sharp divisions between voters.

In a Belo Horizonte coffee shop, civil engineer Eduardo Casasanta talked with two co-workers about a key Rousseff campaign message — that those people Neves governed for eight years later passed judgment on him by giving the incumbent president more votes in the first round.

"She is telling everyone that the people who know him don't want him, but the truth is we do," said Casasanta. "We vote for him. I want him to be president."

Andre de Paiva Toledo, a professor at the Dom Helder Camara law school and a Rousseff supporter, disagreed, citing charges that Neves favored relatives while handing out government jobs and contracts.

"He treated Minas Gerais like it was a feudal land," Toledo said. "He doesn't give much confidence that he respects democracy."

Such charges of elitism against Neves resonate in the state's poorer areas, where Rousseff won the first-round vote because of the social programs that her Workers' Party greatly expanded, helping pull millions out of poverty and into the middle class.

That's also true in regions outside Belo Horizonte and other urban areas, where the Minas Gerais countryside features rolling green mountains, iron ore mines and coffee plantations.

In a poor rural area on the capital's outskirts, Maria Lindaura Dos Santos recently hung clothes to dry outside the house where her daughter and three grandchildren live a newly developed area where the government offers loans for low-income families who want to buy two to three-bedroom houses.

While water and electricity are connected, they still have no sewage system. But the new neighborhood is pulling through, she said.

"No one used to do anything for people in the villages. But we have a little house, and a bus stops nearby," said Dos Santos, a Rousseff supporter. "They are the only ones who remember we exist."


Adriana Gomez Licon is on Twitter