Brazil's unpredictable election took another twist Sunday, with populist President Dilma Rousseff forced into a runoff race as expected, but against a center-right challenger who only surged in the final week of the campaign.
Rousseff will face Aecio Neves in the Oct. 26 runoff vote, required as no single candidate won an outright majority. The primary results from the electoral officials indicated the president won 41% against Neves' 34%.
As surprising as Neves' rise was the fall from grace of another candidate, former environment minister Marina Silva, who took 21% of the vote. In late August, she held a double-digit lead over Rousseff in polls just two weeks after being thrust into the race when her Socialist Party's first candidate died in a plane crash.
But over the past three weeks the powerful political machine of Rousseff's Workers' Party together with the campaigning from former president Lula da Silva crushed Silva with what some analysts called the most negative and aggressive campaigning Brazil has seen since returning to democracy nearly 30 years ago. Silva fell hard in polls and could never regain her footing or get her message out.
The pro-business Neves, however, had the backing of the well-organized Social Democracy Party, which held the presidency from 1994 until 2002, a period when Brazil tamed its hyperinflation and turned its economy around.
Aecio's performance has been extraordinary and one of the reasons for this is the very strong party structure behind him — a party with a strong nationwide presence and which has been in the presidency, said Carlos Pereira, a political analyst with the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil's leading think tank. It is now a new election where everything is wide open. Aecio, who until recently no one believed had a chance, has emerged as a very strong candidate.
Neves is an economist and former two-term governor of Minas Gerais, Brazil's second-most populous state, where he left office in 2010 with an approval rating above 90%.
He has strong name recognition in Brazil. Neves began his political career at age 23 as the personal secretary to his grandfather, Tancredo Neves, a widely beloved figure who was chosen to become Brazil's first post-dictatorship president but fell ill and died before taking office.
One year after his grandfather's death, Neves was elected to the first of four terms as congressman. The 54-year-old father of three also served one term as senator.
Neves' reputation took a hit in July, when respected daily Folha de S.Paulo alleged Neves' government spent around 5.5 million dollars to build an airport on land belonging to an uncle of the then-governor. Neves later contested the accusations in an editorial in the same newspaper.
As for the fall of Marina Silva, it was Lula da Silva and Rousseff's aggressive campaigning that eviscerated her support.
It was thought Silva could tap into the widespread disdain Brazilians hold for the political class — anger that boiled over into roiling, nationwide anti-government protests last year.
But she couldn't withstand a barrage of attacks labeling her as indecisive and without the mettle needed to lead the globe's fifth-largest nation, the message pounded by the Workers Party but which only became really effective when Lula da Silva joined on the attacks.