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Brazilians head to the polls Sunday. If Marina Silva is elected, she would become that country's first Afro-Brazilian president, but to do that she must defeat the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla fighter who was tortured under Brazil's former dictatorship. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro visited one Sao Paulo neighborhood to talk to voters.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's been an election season here filled with shocks. The presidential candidate Eduardo Campos was killed in a plane crash in August and it thrust his vice presidential running mate Marina Silva into the top spot on the socialist ticket. And suddenly, what looked like an easy election for incumbent Dilma Rousseff got very competitive and very negative.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rousseff is fighting for her political life and hasn't pulled any punches. This campaign ad shows a greedy cabal of businessman literally taking food off a working-class family's plate. It alleges Silva's plan to make Brazil's central bank independent will hand over its power to big business.
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MARINA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Silva responded with an impassioned spot of her own, talking about growing up hungry and poor in the Amazon, and saying she wasn't going to stoop to Dilma's scare tactics. There is a third candidate, Aecio Neves. He's from the right and is in third place right now, but has recently been moving up in the polls. None of the candidates seem to have the required 50 percent to win outright and so this election, it seems, will go to a second round.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Portuguese).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everyone is required by law to vote in Brazil and debates can get rather heated, as we discovered when we visited the house of the dos Santos family. Leila dos Santos nurses her newborn daughter. She's 38, she sits in the kitchen with her mother Ana, 65 and her sister Aurea, who is 32. It's a humble house with a tin roof. Leila says the last time she voted for Dilma, but this time she wants to vote for Marina.
LEILA DOS SANTOS: (Through translator) When we voted Dilma the first time we expected more - I expected more - for the country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her mother Ana says she's going to vote for Dilma and her governing Worker's Party. She says she appreciates the social programs like Bolsa Familia, which gives cash to families in return for sending children to school.
ANA DOS SANTOS: (Through translator) She looked after the poor a lot. What would happen to the poorer northeast of the country if not for the money she gives?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aurea is going to vote for the rightist candidate, Aecio Neves. She thinks the PT and all its recent corruption scandals have shown they have been in power too long. This neighborhood is called Jardim Angela in Sao Paulo's south. It was formed a dozen years ago when people from the poor northeast of the country invaded the land here and built makeshift homes. Now it's a proper neighborhood with a community center and paved roads, its history a reflection of the dramatic changes in Brazil in the last decade. Under Dilma Rousseff's party, the PT, Brazil boomed. Her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, enacted policies that raised millions onto the lowest rung of the middle class. People like the dos Santos family are more interested in services like health and education and poverty reduction. Leila says she wants to be able to rely on the health system here but she can't.
L. DOS SANTOS: (Through translator) We have a basic health unit in the community here, but it never has a pediatrician, never has a doctor.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's why this election is too close to call. This neighborhood was staunchly in Dilma's camp in 2010. They helped put her into office. Now, people here have splintered.
DAVID FLEISCHER: Dilma Rousseff is ending her term with Brazil in much worse shape than she received it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's David Fleischer, professor of political science at the University of Brasilia. The economy here is stagnating, and he says there's also been 12 years of rule by the same party and people are tired and want change. But more recent polls show that Rousseff's negative campaign ads have been working. Her popularity has been steadily climbing, and her message that change can be as frightening as it is enticing is resonating. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.