Image: Dilma Rousseff, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Marisa Leticia Silva
Andre Penner  /  AP
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, and Workers Party presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff wave to supporters as first lady Marisa Leticia Silva, bottom center, looks on during a campaign rally in Sao Bernardo do Campo, outskirts of Sao Paulo on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/3/2010 5:32:50 AM ET 2010-10-03T09:32:50

Brazilians vote Sunday in national elections that could see 62-year-old former Marxist rebel Dilma Rousseff become the country's first female president, succeeding her popular ally and mentor.

An economist by training, Rousseff represents the ruling Workers Party and is the hand-chosen successor of outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who led Brazil to unparalleled economic growth and increasing political clout on the global stage. She is seeking a strong mandate to continue Lula's mix of market-friendly policies and social programs that have nurtured a long boom in Latin America's largest economy.

Voting starts at 8 a.m. from the Amazon rain forest to the vast central farmlands and the violence-plagued slums of beachside Rio de Janeiro. Brazil is the world's fourth most populous democracy and voting is electronic, meaning that results could be in before Monday.

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The latest polls show Rousseff, with a lead of about 20 percentage points over her closest rival, Jose Serra, a 68-year-old centrist from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party who was heavily defeated by Silva in the 2002 election.

Yet she does not have Lula's charisma nor his emotional bond with voters, and that could undermine her ability to lead a broad coalition government at a time when Brazil needs more economic reforms to keep growing strongly.

"She is the technically competent manager Brazil needs to manage all the resources we now have," said Manuel Javen, a 45-year-old public school teacher in the capital Brasilia. "But we'll also vote for her because of the fidelity and friendship she has with Lula."

He hopes that Lula, who is not allowed to seek a third consecutive term, will return as president in 2014.

'Lying under torture'
While some dismiss Rousseff as a civil servant who lacks Lula's popular support and compelling rags-to-riches life story, her background is anything but dry.

Born to a middle-class family, Rousseff got involved with radical politics in the 1960s and became part of the armed struggle against the country's military, which governed the country from 1964 to 1985.

While she denies ever being directly involved in armed confrontation with security forces, she did spend spend three years in jail where she was subjected to electric shocks, the BBC reported.

Rousseff is rarely quoted about her experience with torture, but also doesn't apologize for her time as a militant, according to the BBC.

"Lying under torture is not easy. And any person who dares to speak the truth to interrogators compromises the lives of his or her equals and delivers those people to be killed," according to BBC News.

Short on substance
The campaign has been short on substance and long on arguing about who would more efficiently continue the policies of the Silva presidency — eight years during which some 20.5 million people have been lifted from poverty.

Rousseff spent Saturday at Silva's side working crowds in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, just outside Sao Paulo, Silva's hometown and a Workers Party stronghold. Trying to fight any complacency among her supporters, Rousseff downplayed her lead in the polls and testily deflected questions about where she might hold a victory party.

Instead, she spoke of economic advances under Silva, who is popularly referred to as Lula. Rousseff laid claim to his legacy, saying she was the candidate to transform Brazil into an economic power that leaves nobody behind.

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"We are only going to do it with the path that President Lula has opened," Rousseff said. "I do not believe in a developed nation that has a part of its population marginalized. My goal is to continue President Lula's work at eradicating poverty."

Despite an ethics scandal that received heavy media coverage in the final weeks of the race, Rousseff's numbers barely ticked down and polls put her on the cusp of winning an outright majority Sunday and avoiding a runoff Oct. 31.

Nevertheless, Serra, who has struggled through a campaign that analysts said lacked focus and failed to resonate with many voters, expressed confidence that he would make it to a second round for another four weeks of campaigning during which voters could examine the candidates more closely.

"On Monday, it all begins again," he said while campaigning in Sao Paulo on Saturday. "We are going to a second-round vote for the good of the country."

If the election does go to a runoff, it could be due to spoiler candidate Marina Silva, a former environment minister who is not related to the president.

Strong Green standing
In recent weeks, the Green Party candidate's standing in the polls rose from a steady 10 percent throughout the campaign to about 14 percent in the wake of the ethics scandal.

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Yet even if forced into a runoff, Rousseff is widely expected to become Brazil's next president.

"A second round would pit Dilma against Serra, but the difference between the two is too large to be breached in such a short period of time," said Amaury de Souza, a Rio de Janeiro-based political analyst. "Unless there is a new catastrophic disclosure regarding corruption or Dilma's health, she will win the second round."

About 135 million voters will also cast ballots for governors, mayors and state and federal houses of Congress.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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