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Brazil's presidential race heads to a tight runoff – leaving Silva behind (+video)

Incumbent President Rousseff failed to win a majority of votes in yesterday's election and will next face off against Neves in a runoff. Silva, who shot to the top of the pack in August, lost momentum as critics turned on her policies.

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Presidential candidate Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) gives a news conference after the official vote tally confirmed her in third place in the first round of elections, in Sao Paulo, October 5, 2014. Silva, a prominent environmentalist who had recently led opinion polls but wilted in the final days under a barrage of negative television ads and doubts about her shifting positions on issues, came in third place with just 21.3 percent of votes.

Nacho Doce/REUTERS

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Addressing a large crowd of emotional supporters, Brazilian presidential candidate Marina Silva said last night she knows “Brazil wants change.”

But not the radical change that Ms. Silva was offering to Brazil's 200 million citizens. Instead, they voted in yesterday's presidential election to send incumbent President Dilma Rousseff and pro-business candidate Aécio Neves to an Oct. 26 runoff, leaving Silva, a prominent environmentalist, trailing behind.

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President Rousseff received 41.4 percent of the vote, ahead of Mr. Neves at 33.7 percent and Silva at 21.3 percent.

It was a disappointing end for Silva, who became the star of the race in its final months, following the death of her running mate Eduardo Campos in a plane crash. A popular anti-establishment figure, she appealed to Brazilians seeking change after 12 years of rule by Rousseff's Workers Party (PT). Many pollsters predicted that the two women would go head to head in a run-off. But her campaign faltered as she flip-flopped on issues like gay marriage and failed to uphold political alliances.

“Marina was blasted very negatively by Dilma's campaign with a lot of falsehoods,” says political scientist David Fleischer, referring to TV attack ads that claimed Silva would dismantle popular public welfare programs and let big banks take over the country. “She also made mistakes opposing alliances Campos had set up with rival parties, and backtracking on various policy issues.”

Flip-flopping

Silva’s initial surge in popularity was boosted by a flood of emotion surrounding the death of Mr. Campos, himself a popular politician. Silva claimed she would stand above corruption and political horse-trading, which appealed to young and middle-class voters, though her alternative approach was short on specifics.

Critics assailed her policy on issues such nuclear energy and gay rights, which she reversed under pressure from the evangelical church. Mr. Neves quipped that her manifesto seemed to have been “written in pencil."

Rousseff's campaign drove home the message that Silva would take food from families' plates and give more power to bankers. PT policies have lifted more than 60 million people people out of poverty over the past decade, leaving vast swathes of Brazil's poorest regions fiercely loyal to the government. 

Still, many Brazilians are disenchanted with the current government amid recent corruption allegations and a stuttering economy. Discontent over the quality of public services, which spiraled into the biggest street protests in decades in June 2013, remains high.

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Another option

But in the end, most disaffected voters turned to Neves, a former state governor from a wealthy political dynasty who shone in televised debates. He represents the center right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PDSB), a longtime rival of Rousseff's PT.

“Aecio's success shows that when Brazilians were thinking what is the real option for change they saw that as the PSDB, which has a strong structure and political presence in many states,” says political blogger Mauricio Savarese. “People know what living under the PSDB is like, whereas Marina was an unknown.”

PSDB holds multiple state governorships, including São Paulo, which is the most populous in the country, and ruled Brazil between 1995 and 2002. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso from the PSDB was the first to introduce federal programs to address inequality, but he's also known for privatizing state enterprises and passing austerity budgets. That gives PT an opening to frame a runoff as a classic battle between the elite and the masses.

Rousseff’s first-round outcome was the lowest percentage of votes won by any incumbent president in Brazil since direct elections were reintroduced in 1989. But the election is still hers to lose, says Mr. Savarese. “Dilma only needs eight more points to get a majority, Aecio needs 17,” he says. “It will be very hard for him to gain that much ground.”


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