Brazil's President and Workers' Party (PT) presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff reacts during news conference to the election results, in Brasilia Oct. 26, 2014.
Brazil's President and Workers' Party (PT) presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff reacts during news conference to the election results, in Brasilia Oct. 26, 2014.

Brazil's president promised to reconcile the country, reboot the economy, fight corruption, and listen to voters’ demand for change in a victory speech late Sunday in the capital, Brasilia.

Dilma Rousseff, 66, was re-elected by a narrow margin, winning 51.6 percent of the vote to 48.4 percent for her rival, business favorite Aecio Neves, in a run-off election.  This was the fourth straight win for her Workers' Party (PT).

President Rousseff admitted responsibility for four yours of sluggish economic growth, which pushed Brazil into recession this year.  She said “she wanted to be a much better president” than she had been to date.

U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated his Brazilian counterpart.  The White House said Brazil is an “important partner” and the United States is committed to working with President Rousseff to strengthen relations.

Neves, a 54-year-old senator, called Ms. Rousseff late Sunday to congratulate her.


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140 million registered voters

Brazilians have largely shrugged off the acrimonious finger pointing and corruption allegations that characterized the most competitive campaign in decades, dividing instead between those who feel better off than they did before Rousseff's party took office and those who believe the country is stuck in a rut.

“We're tired after 12 years ... we need a change, we need better education and basic health care,” said Tiago Nunes, a 32-year-old doctor in Sao Paulo who was voting for Neves.

Electronic polls opened without incident from remote farming communities in the vast interior to coastal towns in the historically poor Northeast. More than 140 million people are registered to vote in Brazil and casting a ballot is mandatory for everyone between the ages of 18 and 70.

Rousseff voted early in the southern city of Porto Alegre, where she lived and rose in the state bureaucracy in the 1990s. She has promised to deepen flagship welfare programs and to seek to restore growth with a new economic team.

Neves also promises to keep the popular social benefits while adopting more market-friendly fiscal measures to rein in public spending, take a tougher stance against inflation and give the central bank more autonomy to set monetary policy.

Clash between the classes

The choice takes Brazil back to a clash between classes in a country still riven by inequality.

The final two opinion polls before Sunday's vote showed Rousseff as a slight favorite, with one putting her in front by 6 percentage points. But one showed Neves pulling ahead in Minas Gerais, the state he governed for two terms and a bellwether every victorious presidential candidate has won since Brazil's full return to democracy in 1989.

Pollsters faced widespread criticism for failing to pinpoint Neves' strong showing in the first round of voting on Oct. 5, when he surged from a distant third place to clinch second.

If the vote were about the economy alone, Rousseff would have a hard time winning.

As demand for Brazil's vast natural resources cooled in recent years, her administration has been unable to revive growth. That has strained a government model that relied on soaring tax revenues to fuel social programs and pump subsidized credit through state lenders, juicing a consumer boom.

The economy, which fell into recession in the first half of the year, has grown by less than 2 percent annually on Rousseff's watch. Investment has sagged and inflation, a chronic problem in Brazil's pre-boom past, is running just over the government's official tolerance limit of 6.5 percent.

Although unemployment remains at historic lows, economists see few bright spots on the horizon.

“Regardless who wins, the economic model in Brazil is exhausted and needs real change to grow again,” said Luis Otavio Leal, an economist at Banco ABC Brasil in Sao Paulo.

Corruption scandals

Meanwhile, persistent corruption scandals have led to criticism from many that the ruling party has turned a blind eye to the pillaging of public coffers.

An ongoing probe over kickbacks by contractors at the state-run oil giant Petrobras has hurt Rousseff's reputation as a competent manager because she once chaired the company's board and as president appoints senior executives.

In a televised debate against Rousseff on Friday, Neves said Brazilians could end corruption with one measure: “Pull the Workers' Party from government.”

Still, his plea is likely to fall on deaf ears among many of the roughly 40 percent of the electorate who credit the Workers' Party with helping them lead more prosperous lives. The party's aggressive campaign team has cast most criticism as the deceitful propaganda of a power-hungry elite.

“No other party is going to work on behalf of people like us,” said Sergio Calazans, a 42-year-old fruit vendor in the Rio de Janeiro slum of PavIao-PavIaozinho. “Sure there are mistakes, but who doesn't make a mistake?”

The political standoff is on display on the hillside upon which the slum sits. Red and black campaign propaganda of the Workers' Party gives way to blue-and-yellow signs, flags, and stickers for the opposition along wealthier streets below.

Longstanding rivalry

The race has given an oversized role to a longstanding rivalry between Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's popular predecessor and mentor, and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Neves' Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which held power from 1995 to 2002.

Lula made three predictions involving soccer and politics on Saturday. Two proved wrong after Barcelona lost to Real Madrid and his beloved Corinthians team tied with Palmeiras in Brazil. Shortly after 8 p.m. local time (2200 GMT) the world will know if his third, Rousseff's victory, comes true. 

Some information for this report came from Reuters.