Despite winning the first round of voting in the Brazilian elections last week, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has a fight on her hands in her quest to get re-elected. She and the ruling Workers Party (PT) beat all comers in the first round by clinching 41.6% of the vote. But, since this isn’t an outright majority, she now faces a ‘run-off’ (no jogging involved, sadly) with the man who came in second, Aecio Neves.

The self-styled ‘pro-business’ candidate of the Brazilian Social Democrats (PSDB) managed 31.6% of the vote, which comfortably secured him 2nd place and another chance to go for the grand prize versus Rousseff. Yes, this election has been entirely comparable to a Saturday night game show: mud-slinging, bitter rivalry in-front of the cameras, slapstick comedy gold from some of the contestants. It’s got it all. Even a bonus prize luxury yacht for the winner could be on the cards, at least if you believe the constant tales of corruption that seem to emerge from Brazilian politics like clockwork.

Both the finalists Neves and Rousseff are tarred with this brush. But with voting compulsory, they are largely spared the prevalent problem of the older ‘Western’ democracies of encouraging the disaffected or apathetic masses to the polling booths (over 115 million votes were cast in the first round). All they have to do is make them put the X next to their name on the ballot sheet.

Face off: Rousseff versus Neves (Image: Motagem/Agencia Brasil via commons.wikipedia.org)

And, even though Neves may have done significantly worse at this in the first vote, he is now tipped by some to go on and beat Rousseff in the run-off on the 26th. According to one of the latest opinion polls (IBOPE), he has 51% of voter intention to Rousseff’s 49%. A hair’s breadth of a lead, but a lead nonetheless.

How is he doing better now? Well, a lot may be down to the impact of third place, Bronze medalist of the first round of voting; Marina Silva and her influence. As little as a month ago, before the first vote, her pro-environmental campaign was tipped to go all the way. In the final few weeks though, the wave of support collapsed quicker than David Luiz and the national soccer team against Germany back in July, and she ended up with just 22.3% of votes. But while Silva may have bowed out of the Presidential race, she certainly hasn’t given her curtain call just yet. It’s now a sprint for Rousseff and Neves to capture the votes of the 22 million Brazilians who voted for her first time round. And it looks neck and neck so far.

Even though Neves’ 1% lead in the latest polls is too narrow to bank on, the latest twist in this remarkable election campaign could easily see it increase: Silva has decided to back him against Rousseff and the PT, so determined is she to see the back of the current President. The move sent shockwaves around the political theater of Brazilian politics when she announced it with a typically winning smile last Sunday:

“I trust in the sincerity of the proposals of the candidate and his party, and I give to the Brazilian society the task to see that they are fulfilled.”

We knew Silva wanted Rousseff gone, but cozying up with Neves; really? Though branded as a ‘pro-business centrist’, it shouldn’t take too much wading through the jargon to work out that he is the right wing player in this particular drama. Silva, on the other hand, is a former PT member (she used to be Environment Minister) and leader of the Brazilian Socialists (PSB) who campaigned on a strong environmental platform and who, like Rousseff, is popular among the legions of poorer Brazilians (only less so, it seems). During the campaign, they both pledged to continue and expand the significant set of social reforms seen in Brazil over the last decade, while Neves instead promised to reign in government spending.

So this is a marriage of convenience more than ideologies. Neves helped usher Silva to the altar with guarantees to implement some of her key policies: more robust indigenous rights, deeper land redistribution and environmental guarantees. But what also helped draw them together was a similar plan for the economy. They both condemn Rousseff’s protecting of Brazilian imports and exports, and instead favor the free market. Leading logically from this, they’d also prefer friendlier relations with the US.

Rousseff, like many of her center-left compadres on the continent, has been outwardly critical of the Goliath Big Brother to the North, and instead deepened ties with the other  “BRICS” nations (That’s Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. Nothing to do with Lego).

Her PT worker’s party has been in power in Brazil for 12 years, first under the stewardship of former trade union big shot and all-round nice guy Lula da Silva, who Barack Obama once called ‘the most popular politician on earth’. He had a point. Leaving office after 8 years at the wheel, Lula had an approval rating of 87%. A mind-blowing figure when compared to basically every politician from the global North. He championed the expansion of welfare and redistribution of wealth; setting up various education and health programs, and also drastically reduced the huge number of Brazilians in poverty, helping lift millions into the blossoming middle-class.

Taking over the reins since the last election, President Rousseff- a former anti-dictatorship guerilla and the country’s first ever female leader- continued on the path Lula had forged. Welfare has continued to expand, with increases in the minimum wage a regular theme, and unemployment also lowered further than ever before. However, without its founding father this moderate Brazilian revolution has faltered recently. That magic word ‘Growth’ has slowed down, and there have been a number of noticeable blows to Rousseff’s government just as she began to push with her re-election bid.

The huge and committed protest movement of the last year, which pits itself against both State and Corporate excesses and seemed to peak just before the World Cup, demonstrates the level and ferocity of discontent that’s out there.  Then, there have been the corruption scandals. Most recently involving the biggest company in the whole country Petrobras, a part-nationalized oil corporation (think a Brazilian YPF, only much bigger) who is alleged to have paid ‘kickbacks’ to a cross-party group of politicians, including PT ministers, after certain State-Corporation contracts were approved.

Protestors in Natal, 2013 (Image: Isaac Ribeiro, via flickr 22/7/2013)

In the two debates that have happened since the first round, Neves of course went for the jugular on this, as Marina Silva had tried before in the first round: “lies”, “irresponsible” and “river of mud” were some of his chosen phrases that give the overall impression of what the debates have been like: at times, little more than a name-calling squabble from both sides.

As Rousseff was desperate to point out amid the flying vitriol and statistical spit-balls of the debates, Neves is tarred with the corruption brush, just like the PT seem to be.  During his time governing the state of Minas Gerais, a significant number of his relatives were given important governing positions (surely we aren’t supposed to believe they all got them purely on merit?) He is even alleged to have built a private airport on a family member’s land using state money while in office. We’re left looking for the least suspicious Presidential hopeful.

Of course, trying to untangle the mess of governing a country as massive, diverse and unwieldy as Brazil is hardly a walk in the park. It may have vast natural wealth and manpower, but it continues to be plagued by deep problems of poverty and crime on truly daunting scales that are by no means destined to follow their downward trend seen during the last decade.

The scale of the task at hand probably goes someway to explaining why politics in the biggest country on the continent can sometimes seem like such a dirty business (a view the run-off debates have done nothing to change). The practice of ‘Pork Barrel’ Politics, where votes in the legislature are courted with government funds (depending on how many voters your local region can deliver) has been a feature ever since the dictatorship. It’s a practical but highly shady way of doing representative democracy, and goes to show how difficult governing a country as superlative as Brazil can be. Right now, the vote is too close to call, but whoever wins out of Rousseff and Neves next Sunday, the slog of the election campaign will be peanuts compared to the job that comes after it.