Rio de Janeiro:Brazil`s presidential elections on Sunday are likely to be the closest in a generation, but polls suggest leftist incumbent Dilma Rousseff will secure a second term after a run-off.
Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured as a dissident under the 1964-85 military dictatorship, has over the past month steadily risen in polls that now forecast her winning an October 26 second-round contest.
The second half of August saw the 66-year-old playing catch-up after environmentalist-evangelist Marina Silva took up the baton for the Socialist Party.
Silva, the daughter of impoverished Amazonian rubber tappers, is preaching the need for a "new politics" and wants to become Brazil`s first black leader.
Silva was the environment minister in Rousseff`s Workers Party (PT) under charismatic former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Silva only entered the race after the Socialist candidate Eduardo Campos was killed in an August 13 plane crash.
But the past month has seen her support slip as Rousseff has gone on the offensive, accusing her rival of wanting to rein back PT welfare programs credited with lifting 40 million Brazilians out of poverty over the past decade.
During campaigning Friday, Rousseff exuded confidence she would defeat Silva and social democrat Aecio Neves, who has closed the gap on Silva in recent days to around three percent, close enough to dream of making a run-off.
"We`re counting on it going to a second round," said Rousseff, who dipped in opinion polls after the economy entered recession five weeks ago and after a corruption scandal implicating dozens of politicians -- mainly Rousseff allies -- broke at state-owned oil giant Petrobras.
"We are prepared for the first round and for the second," Rousseff told a rally in Sao Paulo state.Rousseff has a huge party machine behind her as she seeks a renewed mandate to govern a massive country with an electorate of 142.8 million.
Voters on Sunday will also elect 27 state governors, 513 congressmen and 1,069 regional lawmakers, as well as a third of the senate.
An upsurge in urban violence in Rio this week means 22,253 police, double the usual total, will patrol the former capital`s streets during polling, which starts at 8 a.m. (1100 GMT).
First results are expected around midnight.
Latest first-round opinion surveys give Rousseff a lead of 16 percent over Silva, falling to around seven percent in a run-off against either Silva or Neves.
Rousseff`s rivals have lambasted her stewardship of an economy battered by four years of anaemic growth while rising inflation has hit the government ceiling of 6.5 percent.
But employment has held up and Mark Weisbrot, director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, believes voters will give the incumbent the benefit of the doubt.
"It`s an unusual thing as the economy usually plays a large role in any election. But I thought she would bounce back," Weisbrot told AFP, adding he believed Rousseff is "in striking distance" of winning in one round."It`s almost a plebiscite on the PT`s 12 years in power," said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, analyst with Eurasia Group.
"There is a desire for change with people -- especially the better-off -- all wanting economic improvements, but at the same time there is a desire to retain the (governing) PT`s social policy achievements."
Under the PT, the minimum wage has risen, growth until 2010 was solid and the welfare reforms targeting the poor helped lift tens of millions into an expanding middle class, Neves said.
Silva was part of that PT machine until 2009, when she quit for the Green Party, for whom she placed third in 2010 with 20 million votes.
"It`s time to vote for someone who can really defeat the PT," she tweeted on Friday as campaigning officially came to a close.
"We`re going to beat Dilma... The second round will be different," Silva added, noting a run-off debate affords both candidates equal television time, unlike prior to the first round.
"I think whoever wins will have to steer a different course on economic policy, Dilma included, to bring the fiscal situation into balance and win over business," Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, Global Fellow of Washington`s Woodrow Wilson Centre, told AFP.
For Andre Cesar, analyst with Prospectiva consultancy, the outcome will be the closest in a generation.
"In 1989, (the first direct presidential elections since 1960) the atmosphere was one of absolute novelty, the first direct elections after the return of democracy," Cesar recalled.
Ultimately, Fernando Collor beat Lula in a run-off before the latter finally gained power 14 years later, setting in train the social reforms whose continued championing by his protege Rousseff looks set to deliver a renewed triumph.