Brazil’s next President looks sure to be a woman

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SAO PAULO, Brazil (CNN) — As Brazilians go the polls on Sunday, they can be virtually sure that their next President will be a woman. Only weeks ago, that wasn’t the case.

In mid-August, the two main challengers to incumbent Dilma Rousseff, the first woman ever elected to the highest office, were men.

Then, Brazilian Socialist Party candidate Eduardo Campos died in a plane crash, and his running mate, Marina Silva, took his place.

Campos was running third in the polls and seemed a cinch to lose. But voters have taken to Silva, and she has given the Socialists’ campaign a shot at success.

Center-right candidate Aecio Neves, who was polling second before Campos’ death, has since slipped to third.

But neither Silva nor Rousseff are projected to garner a majority, setting the stage for a runoff between the top two candidates in about three weeks.

Voting in Brazil is obligatory, and polls open at 8 a.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) and close at 5 p.m. local (4 p.m. ET). Results should be announced later the same evening.

Both women have compelling life stories, in which they became persecuted fighters for their respective causes in their younger years.

Silva’s story

Marina Silva, 56, grew up in the poverty of the Amazon region and didn’t learn how to read until she was teenager.

In a campaign ad, she exclaims to a crowd, “I know what it is to go hungry.”

“I suffered five times from malaria, a few times from hepatitis, also metal poisoning,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “I lived in slavery. I lost my mother at fourteen.”

Her father was a rubber tapper, collecting latex from rubber trees.

She fought along with Chico Mendes in the 1980s against illegal logging. Mendes was murdered.

Silva later entered politics, becoming a senator and environmental minister.

She is seen as a political outsider who could combat corruption.

But critics say she has a rigid personality, making her less able to form political alliances necessary to get work done.

And she is devoutly religious, making her less attractive to liberal voters who may have doubts about her stance on issues like abortion or gay marriage.

But Silva insists her party platform supports gay marriage.

Rousseff’s story

Dilma Rousseff, 66, was once a Marxist rebel who was allegedly tortured in the early 1970s during Brazil’s former dictatorship.

With her trademark pixie-short hair style and thick glasses, she became one of most Brazil’s most wanted fugitives, branded by some as a “subversive Joan of Arc.”

She has a solid track record in running the executive office. Before becoming President in 2011, Rousseff, from the Workers’ Party, was chief of staff to former President Lula da Silva.

She democratized Brazil’s electricity sector through the “Luz Para Todos” (Light for All) program, which made electricity widely available, even in rural areas.

Rousseff presided over the soccer World Cup in Brazil, but she took a lot of political flack over how public money was spent.

Streets filled with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators questioning the morality of pumping so much money into stadiums instead of programs to fight poverty and build infrastructure.

Rousseff defended the spending, saying the vast majority of funds earmarked for infrastructure projects were spent on projects for the nation, not the soccer tournament.

And Rousseff claims that under the presidencies of her predecessor and herself, masses of Brazilians have risen out of poverty.

“We have also mainstreamed into the middle class no less than 42 million people,” she has said.

But inflation is now weighing down that progress.

Rousseff takes conservative stances on some women’s issues. “I am against abortion, I am pro-life,” she told Aparecida TV, a Catholic network. But she has pledged to fight for gay rights.

She is the favorite, but in the days leading up to the election, she has declined in the polls.

In a runoff, her challenger could have a viable chance of taking over her office.

CNN’s Shasta Darlington reported from Sau Paulo, Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta.

By Ben Brumfield and Shasta Darlington