Brasilia: Brazilians voted in elections on Sunday that were seen giving a convincing win to the pragmatic hand-picked successor of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, possibly big enough for her to avoid a draining runoff vote.
More than 130 million people were expected to vote in the elections for president, Congress seats and state governorships across Latin America`s largest country, which has become one of the world`s hottest emerging markets in recent years.
Dilma Rousseff, a career civil servant running for her first elected office, has a chance of winning the 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a second round on October 31, something that not even the wildly popular Lula managed in his back-to-back election victories.
Television exit polls and partial official counts will begin to be announced after around 5 p.m. (4 p.m. EDT/2000 GMT). Rousseff, a 62-year-old former leftist militant aiming to become the first woman to lead Brazil, 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.
The left-leaning Rousseff lacks Lula`s charisma and 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.
Rousseff, Lula`s former chief of staff who impressed him with her administrative skills, was philosophical about her chances of pulling off a first-round victory shortly before she cast her vote in the southern city of Porto Alegre.
"It`s a process of society that decides whether you win in the first or second round," she told reporters in the city where she cut her political teeth as state energy minister.
"Now, whatever happens, I believe that it`s the good fight you`ve fought that gives you victory."
The main opposition candidate, Jose Serra of the centrist PSDB party, trails Rousseff by about 20 percentage points in all major polls. Lula, who is barred from a third straight term and is not on the ballot for the first time since Brazil returned to direct elections in 1989, voted in the Sao Bernardo do Campo industrial area near Sao Paulo where he first shot to prominence as a fiery union boss.
He said he was optimistic that Rousseff would win in the first round but that, if she didn`t, it would "only take another 30 days."
A spate of ethics allegations against the ruling Workers` Party and a former Rousseff aide have slowed Rousseff`s momentum and given Serra hope of extending the race. Rousseff also has been threatened by a late slide in support among Brazil`s millions of evangelical Christians over past comments advocating the decriminalization of abortion.
"We are saying please don`t vote for the Workers` Party because its policies are terrible. It approves of homosexuality, lesbianism, and is in favor of abortion," Pastor Otaviano Miguel da Silva told his morning congregation at an Assembly of God evangelical church in the capital Brasilia.
Two polls released late on Saturday showed Rousseff`s chance of avoiding a runoff had fallen slightly and was too close to call. Voting in the world`s fourth most populous democracy is electronic and usually free of major problems, meaning that results could be in before Monday. The top electoral tribunal said there had been no major problems in the voting so far.
Rousseff has done little more than stick to a safe script in speeches and debates, riding Lula`s sky-high approval ratings of about 80 percent and a purring economy that has created a record number of jobs.
A twice-divorced cancer survivor, Rousseff surged ahead of Serra as soon as campaigning started in earnest in July and has never really been threatened since.
RIDING THE LULA WAVE
Polls show Rousseff would win a runoff by a landslide but a first-round victory would boost her mandate, give her more time to form a government and deal a heavy blow to the opposition.
Former environment minister Marina Silva, who was born into poverty in the Amazon forest and is the Green Party`s candidate, has picked up votes in recent weeks to stand at around 15 percent, but has little chance of reaching a runoff.
Lula, a 64-year-old former shoeshine boy and metalworker, has dominated the campaign, exhorting voters with his gruff voice and everyman charm to shift their faith to Rousseff.
She has been helped by the limp campaign of Serra, whose attempts to persuade Brazilians of the need for change have floundered as he repeatedly switched his message.
Serra, a former health minister who at 68 may be running his last campaign, has vowed to lead a centrist team that would probably be less interventionist than a Rousseff government.
Lula`s popularity also is expected to give the ruling coalition, which is dominated by the Workers` Party and centrist PMDB, bigger majorities in Congress that could make it easier for Rousseff to push through economic reforms.
Polls predict the ruling coalition could reach the 60 percent of Senate seats needed to pass constitutional reforms. But Rousseff, who many believe will usher in a bigger state role in some areas of the economy, has signaled she does not think Brazil needs major structural reforms such as overhauling its bloated social security system and civil service.
Instead, many expect her to focus on less ambitious goals of raising government efficiency and tackling bureaucratic obstacles to infrastructure projects that Brazil badly needs as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.