Rousseff still ahead as Brazil goes to polls


THE FORMER Marxist guerrilla who is favourite to win Brazil’s presidential election came through her final televised debate unscathed on Thursday night, keeping alive her chance of claiming outright victory in tomorrow’s first round of voting.

Ruling Workers Party candidate Dilma Rousseff was clearly the most nervous of the debate’s four participants, several times stumbling over answers and even her own questions to opponents.

But she avoided a direct confrontation with her main rival, Social Democrat José Serra, allowing her instead to focus on the achievements of hugely popular outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is strongly backing her campaign.

“Dilma is not a natural media performer. But she made no crucial error and so this was a good performance for her,” said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst at Tendências, a São Paulo consultancy.

The 62-year-old economist is competing in her first race for public office and has at various times during the campaign looked uncomfortable in the media glare.

Latest opinion polls show she has lost some momentum in the last two weeks following a corruption scandal that toppled a close aide and her successor as President Lula’s powerful cabinet chief.

But with the economy growing strongly and President Lula’s social programmes lifting millions out of misery, Ms Rousseff has opened up a commanding lead by campaigning as his political heir.

At 52 per cent in the polls she is still on course to get more than 50 per cent of the votes required to avoid a run-off round in three weeks’ time. Her nearest contender Mr Serra has just 31 per cent.

If she wins, Ms Rousseff would become Brazil’s first woman president and the second former 1960s guerrilla to become a South American head of state, following José Mujica in Uruguay.

Ms Rousseff and Mr Serra chose not to direct questions at each other during the nearly two hours of debate which was carried on Brazil’s most watched television network.

Mr Serra had aggressively attacked Ms Rousseff on the corruption record of the Lula administration in a debate on Sunday night, but his campaign’s pollsters warned that this strategy risked leaving him look overly negative with voters who wanted concrete proposals from candidates.

Instead Thursday’s debate centred on jobs, health, housing and infrastructure with many analysts describing it as dull and repetitive. One-third of viewers had switched off before the end.

The night’s most heated clashes were between Mr Serra and Marina Silva, the Green Party candidate who is trailing in third place with 15 per cent, according to opinion polls.

President Lula’s former environment minister, Ms Silva is pitching her candidacy as the only one that will be competitive against Ms Rousseff in any second round as she has lower rejection levels than Mr Serra.

As well as a mountain to climb in the presidential race, the Social Democrats and their allies are also facing a meltdown in support in gubernatorial and congressional races.

The Workers Party and its allies are projected to win historic majorities in both houses of congress and take most of the state governorships.

The only glimmer of hope for the Social Democrats is the likelihood it will hold on to the governorships of São Paulo and Minas Gerais states, the two most populous and economically important in Brazil.