Final polls on the eve of the vote gave a slight edge to incumbent Dilma Rousseff, who is in a tight race against Aecio Neves, a 54-year-old former state governor. (Reuters)

The men loading fresh lobster onto a pickup truck in this far northeastern coastal town joked as they talked politics, but one central issue in the country’s upcoming presidential runoff clearly divided them — the federal Family Allowance income support that has been paid to millions of poor Brazilians since the governing Workers’ Party took over in 2003.

Jorge Conceição, 28, said he will vote in Sunday’s runoff to reelect President Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party candidate, whom he described as “riding high” in his fishermen’s colony. He said one reason is the allowance that his family of five collects.

But Valneivaldo Gonçalves, 43, who owns two fishing boats, dismissed the stipend as a vote-buying mechanism. He vowed to vote for Rousseff’s business-friendly challenger, Aécio Neves, from the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party.

Gonçalves is in a minority here in Bahia state, the heartland of Workers’ Party support. The state’s residents voted overwhelmingly for Rousseff in the first round of the presidential election Oct. 5 and kept her party at the helm of the state government. Many in Entre Rios say Rousseff is the only choice, because they were worse off before she and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took office, helping to slash the national poverty rate by 55 percent as Brazil’s economy grew.

The Family Allowance, collected by 1.8 million families in Bahia and half the population in Entre Rios, is widely credited as a key driver of the drop in poverty. Yet, despite the popularity of the Workers’ Party here, there is no shortage of criticism from voters such as Gonçalves, who say Entre Rios is also a microcosm of some of the party’s failures: Entre Rios still desperately needs more jobs, better security and a more responsive government.

“Dilma is finishing off Brazil,” Gonçalves said.

Courtesy of the state

Josefa dos Santos, 55, gave birth to 14 children in Bahia’s rural outback. Now she lives in a neat and simple house with a flat-screen television and a DVD player in Cidade Nova, a dusty, rural slum just outside Entre Rios. Life before Lula was much tougher, said dos Santos, who added that she has collected a $53 monthly allowance for about eight years.

“In other times, who had enough money to buy this?” she asked, pointing to the tiled floor. Like most in the area, she said she will vote for Rousseff.

Also in Cidade Nova, a federally funded family health center — another Workers’ Party point of pride — is being expanded. Its resident doctor came to the area as part of a government program through which about 14,000 doctors, with Cubans heavily represented among them, were hired to work in poor, remote areas.

“It is a beautiful experience, because I work with a very needy community,” said the doctor, Havana native Grisel Torres.

Even so, Bahia has not improved its health services as much as it could have, said Gustavo Morelli, associate director of the Brazilian consultancy Macroplan, which specializes in public management.

“In health, they evolved but at a slower speed than the rest of the country,” he said. That also is true for education, Morelli said, describing Bahia as having “not met targets.”

On a hot morning, students spilled out of the Duque de Caxias state high school and loitered in the shade of trees in its overgrown front yard. Resources were not lacking, said the school principal, Maria da Fatima dos Santos. But she said projects often stalled or were not implemented because of paperwork.

“Our biggest problem is bureaucracy,” she said.

She showed off a crumbling concrete auditorium, no longer safe for use. Since 2012, the school has had the money in its account to renovate the auditorium, but the bureaucratic process involved, managed by the state government, has yet to be completed.

“The system leaves us restricted,” dos Santos said.

Entre Rios Mayor Fernando de Oliveira, of the Social Democratic Party, said the Workers’ Party is more interested in propaganda than in encouraging enterprise that can create jobs.

“We could make it so people live without the Family Allowance, encouraging them to grow, encouraging them to produce, and not producing dependence,” he said.

The municipality has some fishing and tourism in its coastal region, an hour from the city. But inland, the main economic activity aside from farming is producing oil from small wells — bobbing pumpjacks are visible around town — and harvesting eucalyptus forests. But the tree harvesting takes place only every six years, providing minimal employment. Unemployment in Bahia was 8.5 percent in 2013, compared with 6.5 percent nationally.

De Oliveira and Áurea Mércia, his secretary for economic development, tourism and the environment, are betting on an ambitious plan to create an industrial park. In June, after a four-year court battle, the municipality bought about 250 acres of land previously used to grow eucalyptus. Twenty-nine companies have indicated they intend to operate there, Mércia said.

But de Oliveira and Mércia said the state government has given them no support.

“In their view, this was an un-realizable dream,” de Oliveira said. The city, and not the state, is funding infrastructure works such as roads, he said.

“We have paving to do,” said Mércia.

Poverty and public safety

On a recent evening, a convoy of police vehicles patrolled Cidade Nova.

The previous week, a man died in a shootout with police. Maj. João Himério, the commander of military police for Entre Rios and surrounding cities, positioned his officers as a group of young men leaned, legs spread, against a wall to be searched. The khaki-clad officers cradled machine guns as red police lights swirled.

While poverty is declining, homicides in Bahia are increasing. The murder rate more than tripled between 2002 and 2012, according to the Violence Map produced by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, based in Rio de Janeiro.

“This year, we had an increase of five homicides on last year, which is not good,” Himério said. Most of the 39 murders in his patrol area this year were linked to the drug trade, he said.

“They have to rob for the drugs that they consume, because many of them don’t work,” he said.

Deise da Silva, the vice principal of Padre Jose de Anchieta elementary school in Cidade Nova, said a lack of prospects contributed to violence. She voted for “third way” environmentalist Marina Silva in the first round of the presidential vote and was still agonizing over her choice in Sunday’s runoff.

“This is a needy community,” she said. “Not much expectation in life. A lot of fighting.”