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Dilma Rousseff tops Brazil election, but can't avoid runoff against Jose Serra

The late surge by Green Party candidate Marina Silva has sent the Brazil election into a runoff ballot Oct. 31. Top candidate Dilma Rousseff is still favored to take over for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

By Andrew DownieCorrespondent / October 4, 2010

Dilma Rousseff, presidential candidate for the Workers Party, right, is kissed by Tarso Genro, candidate for Governor of Rio Grande do Sul, next to an electronic ballot box after voting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Sunday, Oct. 3.

Felipe Dana/AP Photo

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São Paulo, Brazil

A late surge by the Green Party candidate in Sunday’s Brazil election siphoned votes away from the presidential favorite and has sent the election into a potentially combative runoff ballot later this month.

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Workers’ Party candidate and odds-on favorite Dilma Rousseff won 46.9 percent of the vote and will face former Health Minister Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party in a runoff on Oct. 31. Mr. Serra placed second with 32.6 percent.

Marina Silva, the Green Party outsider who had been polling in the low teens, placed third with 19.3 percent, making her the most successful third-party candidate in more than 20 years and the day’s big winner.

Scandal hits top candidate

But if the result was a victory for Ms. Silva, it was a disappointment for Ms. Rousseff, who, although she had never ran for office before, had the vociferous backing of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the most popular president in recent history.

Opinion polls in the weeks before the ballot had shown Rousseff close to winning an absolute majority, though her support fell amid several recent scandals as well as rumors that she would decriminalize abortion. Silva was also favored by people disillusioned by two-party politics.

“I like [Silva's] ideas and I think she could change politics,” Josias Perreira da Silva said as he voted in a gritty São Paulo neighborhood early Sunday. “I don’t think she can win, but I think it's worth taking a chance on her.”

Silva appealed to her rivals to heed her 20 million votes and adopt a more constructive dialogue during the coming runoff campaign. “Take advantage of this second chance that Brazil has given us to debate the issues that are truly of interest,” Silva told euphoric fans Sunday night.

Potentially combative runoff

The result could force Serra and Rousseff to adopt more combative styles after months of avoiding direct confrontation. Serra will benefit from having equal television time and he is expected to be more confrontational than during the lukewarm campaign that preceded Sunday’s vote.

In a barbed reference to Dilma’s lack of clarity, he said Sunday: “In the campaign and in public life, I’ve never hidden anything. I have only one face.”

How the two parties may alter their campaign strategies is still unclear, but the Workers’ Party is not expected to make substantial changes. It has the advantage of having won from this same position four and eight years ago.

Serra, meanwhile, will hope that first-round wins for powerful allies in São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the two biggest electoral colleges, might enable them to devote more time to his campaign.

Workers Party increases majority

Although Rousseff was disappointed not to have sealed the contest, she remains the hot favorite, and her party can take heart from its performance in Congressional votes. The Workers' Party did well in Congressional elections, increasing its representation in the Senate to 58 from 39 of 81 seats, according to media counts. In the lower house, it also saw its share of seats rise to more than three-quarters of the total.

Serra’s party took consolation in São Paulo, where Geraldo Alckmin won the gubernatorial race without the need for a runoff, and in Minas Gerais, the second most important state politically, where future presidential hopeful Aecio Neves romped home as senator.

Also among those elected to Congress were former Romario, a member of Brazil's 1994 World Cup-winning team, and Francisco Oliveira Silva (known as "Tiririca"), a television clown whose campaign was heavily criticized for making fun of the democratic process.

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