RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian voters electing a new president Sunday are being asked to decide what scares them least: the incumbent's warnings about the "ghosts of the past," or her challenger's charges about the "monsters of the present."
The latest polls either gave left-leaning incumbent Dilma Rousseff a slight edge or saw a dead heat for the runoff election to choose the leader of the world's fifth-largest nation. For that reason, few are counting out center-right challenger Aecio Neves after a topsy-turvy campaign that has been the most competitive, divisive and dramatic since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985.
"The country is divided in two, with half feeling that social inclusion and protections are what matter most, and the other half believing that macroeconomic stability is more important," said Carlos Pereira, a political analyst at the Gertulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil's leading think tank. "The candidate who convinces voters he or she is best prepared to combine these two beliefs and make them complementary will win Sunday's election."
The race turned dramatic after Eduardo Campos, a main opposition candidate, was killed when his campaign plane crashed in August. His running mate, renowned environmentalist Marina Silva, was thrust into his spot, and she immediately jumped to a double-digit lead over Rousseff and Neves.
Silva initially tapped into the discontent over poor public services that millions of Brazilians expressed in anti-government protests last year, but her campaign never found its feet and voters drifted away within weeks. That opened the gap for Neves to stage his surprisingly strong showing in the Oct. 5 first-round vote, coming in second and forcing Rousseff into a runoff when her first-place finish didn't get an absolute majority.
The campaigns hit fever pitch in the three weeks since, with the Workers' Party that's been in power for 12 years and Neves' Social Democracy Party that last held the presidency in 1995-2003 battling it out with no shortage of verbal jabs and nasty allegations.
Rousseff attacked her rival with campaign ads asking Brazilians to remember the "ghosts of the past" when Neves' party ruled, with much of the nation mired in poverty, unemployment rife, and consumers crippled by hyperinflation. The incumbent has emphasized the deep social gains made under the Workers' Party, whose expansive social welfare programs helped yank millions out of poverty and into the middle class and have kept unemployment at historic lows.
Neves urged voters to look at "monsters of the present," including an economic recession, inflation that's floated above the government's 6.5 percent target, and allegations that the Workers' Party was involved in an apparent decade-long, billion-dollar kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras.
On Saturday, Rousseff headed to southern Brazil, where she began her career as a bureaucrat, to rally supporters and again denounce the accusations of corruption. Neves spent his last day campaigning in the swing state of Minas Gerais, where both he and Rousseff were born, and where Neves served two terms as governor.
The latest results from Brazil's two most respected polling groups were split: one put Rousseff ahead of Neves while the other had them neck and neck.
A Datafolha survey released Saturday had Rousseff leading Neves 52 percent to 48 percent, a statistical tie given the margin of error of 2 percentage points. The poll talked to 19,318 Brazilians across the country on Friday and Saturday.
An Ibope Institute poll put the president's lead at 53-47, with the same margin of error, giving the incumbent a slight advantage. Ibope spoke with 3,010 voters across Brazil on Friday and Saturday.
"I'm voting for Dilma because the Workers' Party has made life easier for the poor. I still live in a slum, but now my home is full of nice, modern things — I've got a TV, a new refrigerator and air conditioning," said Ana Paula Marinho, a nurse who lives in the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela that sits above Copacabana's ornate apartments. "We can see that we've got a better future with Dilma."
But Patricia Botelha, who lives on a leafy street in Rio's wealthy Ipanema neighborhood, said Rousseff's poor management had led Brazil's economy to weak growth and all Brazilians will pay the price if the country doesn't rebound soon. While she voted for the Workers' Party in the last three elections, this year she's casting a ballot for Neves.
"We've never seen social advances among the poor as we've witnessed during the last 12 years. Those are real accomplishments and we're all better off for it," Botelha said. "But we need new ideas on the economy, on how to keep growing, or those gains will be reversed no matter what policies are enacted."
Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report. Brad Brooks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bradleybrooks