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Residents paint buildings at the Dona Marta slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 1, 2010. There is a strong feeling the good times have ground to a halt in Brazil. Growth will be less than 1 per cent this year. Inflation is above 6 per cent and rising. There is near full employment, but a pervasive sense of pessimism.

Felipe Dana/The Associated Press

Sunday's election has Brazil at a crossroads: After 12 years of rule by the Workers' Party in which the economy surged, millions of people saw their standard of living rise dramatically and the country enjoyed a new sense of prestige internationally, there is now a strong feeling the good times have ground to a halt. Growth will be less than 1 per cent this year. Inflation is above 6 per cent and rising. There is near full employment, but a pervasive sense of pessimism.

Who's running for president?

While there are nine candidates, there are three real contenders:

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Dilma Rousseff (Workers' Party): A bureaucrat who won the top job in 2010, she presided over a successful FIFA World Cup but the contracting of the economy. She has a lead of roughly 10 points in the polls.

Marina Silva (Socialist Party): Grew up poor, became an environmentalist who fought alongside Chico Mendes, and elected senator at 36. She became candidate when her party's candidate was killed in a plane crash in August. She would be Brazil's first black president.

Aecio Neves (Brazilian Social Democratic Party): The most conservative candidate, he is a former governor of the industrial state of Minas Gerais. He's the grandson of a former president. His party has been trying to regain power for 12 years.

Who's voting for whom?

Ms. Rousseff has devout loyalty from many of the poor and new middle class, who credit her party for the rise in their standard of living (and that's a huge chunk of Brazil). But she is loathed by the upper-middle class, who believe she has mismanaged the economy and blame her for lousy public services.

Ms. Silva is drawing support from young people, the middle class and elite. In polls, she shows huge numbers of votes from people who say they hadn't planned to support any candidate before her entry into the race. She is an evangelical Christian, and the powerful evangelical lobby (representing about 22 per cent of Brazilians) has endorsed her. Environmentalists like her, but liberals concerned about her conservative views on gay rights and abortion don't. A vote for Ms. Silva is seen as a vote against Brazil's traditional politics.

Mr. Neves is the preferred candidate of the upper-middle class and of the business community, which believes he would aggressively pursue liberalization.

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What happens next?

Voting is mandatory. If no candidate obtains 50 per cent plus 1 on Sunday, the top two proceed to a runoff on Oct. 26. Polls are shifting daily, but it seems likely to be Ms. Rousseff and Ms. Silva in a runoff. Mr. Neves could play kingmaker if he throws support to Ms. Silva, but he has attacked her relentlessly through the campaign.

Brazilians also elect a new Congress this week and the new president will have to cobble together a governing coalition. Ms. Silva, who lacks historic allies in the parliament, will particularly struggle to do that; some analysts predict there could be as much as a year of paralysis.

The prospect of a Rousseff re-election is already affecting the financial markets: The Brazilian real fell to its lowest level in six years on Monday, while Bovespa, the national stock exchange, had its largest one-day drop in three years – 4 per cent – based on polls showing her lead widening.

Either Mr. Neves or Ms. Silva would likely sharply curtail government spending, if elected, while Ms. Rousseff continues to see it as a key economic driver. She has accused her opponents of planning to axe social programs. Ms. Silva, in a powerful speech that became a campaign ad, countered that no one who grew up sharing one egg with seven siblings would ever do that.

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