Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, rode the success of her income redistribution programme to come out on top in a first-round election on Sunday, but failed to secure the overall majority needed to avoid a run-off.
After a rollercoaster campaign, the Workers Party incumbent came from behind to win 41.4% of the vote and will now face Aécio Neves of the pro-business Social Democratic party, who secured second with a spectacular late surge that boosted his vote to 33.7%.
The left-right battle between the nation’s two biggest parties is a disappointment to those who had hoped for change in the form of former environment minister Marina Silva, who led the polls at one stage, but faded into a distant third place with 21.3% – almost the same as she managed during her last attempt four years ago.
“Once again the Brazilian people have honoured me with their trust by giving me a victory in the first round of this contest,” Rousseff said.
The election appeared to have been carried out peacefully as 143 million voters headed to polling stations everywhere from the Atlantic seaboard to deep inside the Amazon rainforest. Some voters had to travel by boat for more than 12 hours to reach a polling booth, according to local media.
When the results were revealed, Workers party campaigners who had gathered outside a canvas screen set up in the street in central Rio cheered and celebrated with Samba classics, Antarctica beer and a barbecue, but the festivities were muted.
“We’re happy, but we had hoped for more,” said Marcelo Rodrigues, coordinator of the union campaign in Rio. “Aécio will be a strong opponent. Silva’s challenge came to nothing. It’s back to the bipolar politics of old.”
Until the previous day, most had been expecting a run-off against Silva, but, having toyed with change, the electorate eventually opted for the two main parties of left and right that have dominated Brazil politics for decades.
Coming a year after mass street protests that highlighted the high levels of frustration at the running of the country, the traditional outcome was a relatively mild surprise in an eventful campaign that has featured a huge corruption scandal at the country’s biggest oil company, Petrobras, the rising power of evangelical Christianity, and a row over a homophobic rant by one of the fringe candidates.
The election appeared to turn on its head in August, when the candidate for the Socialist party, Eduardo Campos, was killed in a plane crash.
His running-mate, Silva, benefited from a huge surge of sympathy to triple the party’s vote and lift them briefly into first place. But the two main parties steady reasserted their strength by using their substantial advantages in TV time and campaign funding to attack Silva and press home their greater experience in the key area of running the economy.
“Brazil voted largely against all that is wrong with the current government,” said Silva after the result. “Brazilians do not want to just be spectators of politics.”
Buoyed by a last-minute surge, the Neves team put more campaigners on the streets outside polling stations. In downtown Rio, every parked car had at least Neves two pamphlets under their windscreen wipers, and temporary staff handed out cards to every passerby willing to take one.
At the polling station in the Colegio Angelorum school in Gloria, Rio de Janeiro eaarlier, in the day, several voters acknowledged that their opinions had shifted away from Silva in recent weeks.
“I was going to vote for Marina, but she was terrible in the debates. She looked very confused,” said Aline Blajchman, a community care worker who said she would support the Green candidate, Eduardo Jorge.
Of the dozen or so people approached by the Guardian, a majority said they would vote for Aécio, who has benefited from a strong performance in TV debates and the country’s biggest campaign machine. “He is the most capable and knowledgeable of the three candidates – the safest pair of hands,” said Silvana Cutrim, a shopkeeper. “Dilma is just an agitator, and Marina is too unreliable.”
Others expressed dissatisfaction with the three leading candidates, but – with voting obligatory under Brazilian law – said they would opt for continuity. “I will vote for Dilma. She’s bad, but the others are worse,” said Jaime Souza, a vegetable stallholder.
The president is now in a strong position to secure a second term. Surveys suggest she will win a second-round vote against Neves by 48% to 42%. But momentum is on Neves’ side, and Silva could yet throw her support behind the challenger, so another surprise cannot be ruled out when the polls open again on 26 October.
“Victory in this first round is thanks to the desire for change in the majority of the population,” said Neves.
As well as choosing from the 11 presidential candidates, voters selected 27 state governors, 513 congressmen, 1,069 regional lawmakers, and a third of the senate. Among the winners is former national football team striker Romario, who gained a seat on the senate. São Paulo state governor Geraldo Alckmin was re-elected despite criticism of his management of the worst drought in history.