SAO PAULO, Brazil — The pocketbook is battling the pulpit in Brazil's presidential elections Sunday, as government candidate Dilma Rousseff faces opposition leader Jose Serra in a runoff election to lead this burgeoning economic power of 190 million people.
Issues that most Brazilians thought didn't belong in national politics — in particular, abortion — have taken center stage, and both candidates are catering to the concerns of evangelical and Roman Catholic voters.
By abandoning her previous public stance on liberalizing the country's anti-abortion laws, and attending church before the television cameras, Rousseff, a former atheist, appears to have outmaneuvered Serra. A national poll Thursday night gave her a 13-point advantage over the former governor of Sao Paulo state.
While Serra faced an uphill battle no matter what, his efforts to woo religious voters kept him from properly articulating his economic vision. This allowed the Rousseff campaign to paint him as pro-privatization, an unpopular stance in Brazil.
The run-up to the first round Oct. 3 began as a textbook case of the Bill Clinton mantra, "It's the economy, stupid." The country was awash in good times and happy with the outgoing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in stark contrast to the economic despair many Americans feel as they head to their own polls Tuesday.
Rousseff, Lula's hand-picked candidate, had been favored to win outright, but an unexpected late surge of evangelical voters, primarily Pentecostalists, but also some Roman Catholics, voting for a third-party candidate who emphasized her opposition to abortion, kept Rousseff from crossing the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff.
The campaign against her began online, and aided by local media, raised questions about Rousseff's position on abortion, which is illegal in Brazil, and whether she believes in God.
In a 2007 interview, now widely circulated on YouTube, Rousseff expressed sympathy for decriminalizing abortion. That was before she became a presidential candidate, however.
Abortion hadn't even been a campaign issue until shortly before the first-round vote.
In Brazil, the president doesn't have the power to legalize abortion. That's up to Congress, which has shown no signs of doing so.
"This was a non-issue," said Marcia Cavallari, with the IBOPE polling firm, in an interview with McClatchy.
In the weeks since Oct. 3, however, Rousseff has had to scramble to calm the concerns of evangelical voters, attending mass at the country's most popular Catholic church. Most significantly, she wrote a letter in which she promised that if elected she "would not propose changing the law regarding abortion."
Her challenger, Serra, has tried to milk this issue, portraying himself as the "candidate of life," and passing out campaign literature saying: "Jesus is the truth and justice."
His wife even said that Rousseff "likes to kill babies."
Pope Benedict XVI also weighed in, telling Brazilian bishops Wednesday to remain firm in their opposition to abortion and saying that even to discuss legalization was to betray democracy "at its very roots."
If Roussef wins Sunday and becomes Brazil's first female president, it would be a major milestone. Yet in doing so, she'll have demonstrated that there's another glass ceiling in Brazil that's tougher to crack.
A Datafolha poll this week showed that 67 percent of Brazilians said that their president's gender doesn't matter, but only 47 percent would accept a candidate that isn't religious.
For many, the candidates' focus on evangelical voters has denied the country the opportunity to discus abortion, a serious problem in Brazil.
According to a government-funded study earlier this year, 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 has had an abortion, and half those cases resulted in hospitalization. Complications from illegal abortions are a particular problem for the poor, the main constituency of Rousseff's Working Party.
As Brazil's health minister during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration in the 1990s, Serra fought to legalize abortions in the case of rape. He also introduced contraceptives.
Brazilian voter Alexandre Calegari, a Rousseff supporter, lamented to McClatchy that, "abortion is not a new problem. Suddenly, both candidates have discovered that God exists and want to take advantage of it." Calegari, 33, an administrator in the country's judicial system, said neither candidate's strategy respects the intelligence of Brazilians.
"People think before they vote. They may be poor or rich, but they think, " he said.
He still plans on voting for Rousseff, but said that "neither are ideal candidates."
The issue of religion isn't new in Brazilian politics. Cardoso was asked by a journalist during a debate for mayor of Sao Paulo in 1985 whether he believed in God. He refused to answer, saying that he was promised that question wouldn't be asked. He lost the election.
Before he was elected president in 1994, however, Cardoso declared himself a believer. He served two terms and enacted many of the economic policies that helped Brazil's economic growth.
What's changed in Brazil today is the growth in evangelical churches — some 20 percent of Brazilians now call themselves Pentecostalists — and their political influence. They own the second largest television network and several publishing houses.
Evangelical Brazilians differ from their U.S. counterparts. They're more liberal on economic matters. Also, they're "spread out over several parties," according to Brazilian political analyst David Fleischer, instead of having "literally taken over the Republican party" in the U.S.
In a column this week in O Estado, the Sao Paulo daily, Fabio Ulhoa Coelho wrote that people who don't believe in God are "the last minority" in Brazil, who face greater hardship in the political arena than blacks, women, or gays.
Should she win, Rousseff wouldn't be the first female Latin American leader facing pressure over abortion and religion.
Women activists' spirits were boosted by the election of Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in 2007, the country's first elected female leader.
However, she hasn't moved on abortion and is said to be personally against it.
A Human Rights Watch report in August blasted her government's policies on female reproductive rights policy.
(Sreeharsha is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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