Class tensions surface in Brazil presidential campaign

SAO PAULO Wed May 14, 2014 12:39pm EDT

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff reacts during an announcement contracting for new sanitation services of PAC2 (Growth Acceleration Program) to municipalities with up to 50,000 inhabitants, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia May 6, 2014. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff reacts during an announcement contracting for new sanitation services of PAC2 (Growth Acceleration Program) to municipalities with up to 50,000 inhabitants, at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia May 6, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ueslei Marcelino

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SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A controversial new campaign ad has made class divisions a key theme in Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's battle for re-election in October.

The combative video, released online by Rousseff's Workers' Party this week, suggests a deeply polarized campaign ahead in which the incumbent will try to shift attention away from Brazil's current economic malaise and focus instead on how life improved for the poor over the last decade.

The ad shows a rural family happily driving in a truck loaded with goods. Then they pass a dust-covered, downtrodden version of themselves from the past, walking along the side of the road and carrying heavy boxes.

"We can't let ghosts from the past come back and take away everything we achieved," a narrator says.

The ad is designed to appeal to the some 40 million Brazilians who have been lifted from poverty under 12 years of leftist Workers' Party rule. Many acquired trucks, washing machines and other big-ticket consumer goods for the first time.

Despite that progress, Brazil still has one of the world's biggest gaps between rich and poor, and class divisions remain a fact of politics and daily life.

The ad drew an immediate rebuke from Rousseff's leading rival in the election, Senator Aecio Neves of the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), who accused the ruling party of "scaring and threatening people in order to try to stay in power."

Polls show that Neves' party, which governed from 1995 to 2003, is still vulnerable to accusations that it is the party of Brazil's rich elite.

Under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the PSDB tamed hyperinflation, which caused poverty to fall. But those years also saw double-digit unemployment and the privatization of many state-run companies, which the Workers' Party has repeatedly characterized as benefiting the rich.

Rousseff's support has sagged in polls, in part because of high inflation and economic growth that has averaged just 2 percent since she took office in 2011.

However, she still leads her rivals and her backing among the poor remains strong. In a poll released earlier this month by Datafolha, Rousseff led Neves by a margin of 47 percent to 17 percent among the lowest income group, families making less than about $700 a month.

In the highest income group, Rousseff led Neves by only two percentage points. Overall, among all groups, she still has a 19-point lead.

Rousseff's powerful chief of staff, Aloizio Mercadante, said in an interview published Wednesday that the "true dispute" in the election would be Cardoso versus Rousseff and her Workers' Party predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

(Reporting by Brian Winter; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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