Brazil just elected its first-ever female president -- so where's the party?
- By Taylor BarnesTaylor Barnes is freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. She tweets at @tkbarnes.
RIO DE JANEIRO — The election of Dilma Rousseff on Sunday had all the trappings of a globally historic event. Daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father, tortured under the military dictatorship, Rousseff assiduously climbed the administrative ranks into the outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s White House and ran for office to become the first female president in this rapidly modernizing country.
But somehow, in Brazil’s capital of parties, many here think there isn’t much to celebrate.
Fervently promoted by the wildly popular Lula, the former presidential chief of staff thumped her opponent, former São Paulo Governor José Serra, winning by a 12-point margin. But the response has been tepid. On the Rio festivity scale, it was somewhere between a rainy day and a league soccer game. At the far end of Rio’s Leme beach, at the scheduled Workers Party celebration, a few hundred supporters waved flags to loud samba music and campaign jingles as the results came in on a boardroom-sized projector screen, but scattered joggers and picnickers took up the rest of the beach’s stretch. In the main downtown plaza near the city’s municipal theater, only about 10 people stood up to cheer when the news came on at an open-air bar, while a stream of theatergoers behind them meandered toward the metro. And nationwide, a record number for a presidential runoff abstained from voting during the long holiday weekend — 21.5 percent. (Voting is mandatory in Brazil.)
By comparison, when Michelle Bachelet — also a former government minister who had not held elected office before and who was tortured under a military dictator — was elected Chile’s first female president in 2006, Chileans thronged Santiago in celebration. They waved the country’s flag, honked car horns, and sang her name in the streets: "¡Olé olé olé olé! ¡Michelle, Michelle!"
Voters here seem significantly less engaged, largely because Rousseff campaigned on a plank of "more of the same" — not the most exciting slogan. "To continue is not to repeat; it is to continue advancing," said Rousseff, in a campaign where voters both asked for more of the same but also questioned whether Lula would simply pull the strings behind the stage. Lula was noticeably absent at Rousseff’s acceptance speech, where she said, "The task of succeeding him is difficult."
"This was really the first election that I remember in my life where first it is a conservative election," says Alexandre Barros, managing director of the Brasilia political consultancy Early Warning Consulting. "The voter is saying… ‘I am going to vote for this guy, this woman, because I want everything to stay as it is.’"
After casting his vote Sunday, university professor Leonardo Mesentier, in a bright red Workers Party shirt, explained, "Really, I’m not voting Dilma; I’m voting for a political base." He had voted for Lula five times previously — Lula ran three times unsuccessfully before his two wins — and said he was neither anxious nor excited about the runoff vote because it looked like an easy victory.
Even less enthusiastic at the same polling site was Edilza, who had also just cast her vote for Rousseff. "I thought she was the least worst" option, she said, adding, "I only vote for Dilma because I live in a community" — a common way of referring to one of Brazil’s favelas (slums). She said that she had seen improvements in living conditions over the past few years and hoped they would continue under the same party.
Rosangela Bittar, editor in chief of the Valor Economico journal and a political columnist, also attributes the lack of voter enthusiasm to the "brute" character of this campaign. Since Rousseff missed an outright victory in the first round of voting Oct. 3, the campaigns devolved into trading jabs on abortion and religion. The opposition latched onto a 2007 interview in which Rousseff expressed sympathy for legalizing abortion, anathema in this devoutly Catholic country. She then loudly emphasized that she’s personally against abortion and that the current law, which only allows it in the case of risk to the mother or rape, should be maintained. The opposition loudly called her on the flip-flop. "I don’t believe that any woman is in favor [of abortion]," she said in a final campaign interview published in Epoca magazine.
Then there were the accusations of dirty politics when Serra was struck in the head with a small object while campaigning in Rio de Janeiro. Serra blamed the projectile on Rousseff’s supporters and went directly to the hospital; Lula said it was just a ball of paper and that the whole thing was a made-up bid for sympathy, comparing Serra to the infamous Chilean goalie Roberto Rojas who pretended to be hit by a flare on the field when his team was losing to Brazil in 1989.
If voters cared about these "farces," as Lula called it, they didn’t much show it. But some told me they were disheartened by the general whiff of corruption that has settled around the Workers Party recently, especially after the resignation of chief of staff Erenice Guerra following accusations of influence-peddling.
Rousseff’s personality is also part of the low-key nature of her victory. Compared with Lula, a fifth-grade dropout from an indigent farmer family often called the "Son of Brazil," Rousseff is still a cipher. U.S. President Barack Obama famously called Lula "the most popular politician on Earth," something it’s difficult to imagine anyone saying about Dilma.
"[Rousseff] is not a charismatic figure; she is not a celebrity. She is a manager. She is someone who is intensely concerned about policy," says Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, adding that her victory was more expected than Bachelet’s, who was seen as a long-shot, unorthodox candidate in a tight race.
Rousseff didn’t, for example, campaign on her personal history to the extent that Bachelet did. Although both candidates suffered under harsh regimes, Bachelet received wide sympathy for having watched her father die under Chile’s military dictatorship and having lived in exile herself.
By comparison, "Dilma tended to keep her [history] really quiet," says Hakim, which he suspects is because of lingering questions over just how militant she was. Rousseff’s role with an outlawed guerrilla group has long been up for debate. Military records of the time call her the "Joan of Arc of subversion," but others write off that characterization, arguing that reports were intentionally exaggerated so that she could be touted as a great catch once she was arrested. Rousseff herself has denied ever taking up arms.
Gender is also far less of an issue for Rousseff than it was for Bachelet. Rousseff joins a line of female executives taking office in Latin America, including Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica. Former first lady Mirlande Manigat is a front-runner in Haiti’s Nov. 28 elections. But while Rousseff is already being called "the most powerful woman in the world" and Brazil’s "Iron Lady," the fact that she’s the first viable female candidate here meant less to most voters than the fact that she’s touted by the most popular male one. In fact, she had more support from men than from women during the campaign — an Oct. 21 Datafolha poll showed 59 percent of male voters saying they’d choose her, compared with 52 percent of females — perhaps due to the fact that she campaigned on being the first female president while not directly addressing gender issues much in her platform.
But as Dilma’s campaign jingle puts it, "Lula is with her; I am too! Look how Brazil has already changed!" And there’s plenty for Brazilians to point to: Brazil’s $1.5 trillion economy is bigger than that of India or Russia. Its income per capita rose from $7,040 when Lula was elected in 2002 to $10,260 in 2009, according to the World Bank, measuring by purchasing power.
Although Brazilians largely credit this boom to Lula, skeptics point to the structural reforms introduced by his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso. While still finance minister, Cardoso’s 1994 "Plano Real" introduced the new currency and for the first time in decades tamed the Brazilian "dragon," as it’s nicknamed here, of inflation. "From then, all the social indicators began to improve, sometimes by more or less, and improvement has accelerated under Lula, but the beginning was there," Cardoso said in a recent interview with the Financial Times. Now though, Lula is credited with the country’s prosperity and seeing at least 20 million people — in a country of 195 million — lifted from poverty.
The Lula government also ends on a triumphal tone with Brazil, long worried that it didn’t fulfill its continental size and potential, finally becoming a serious player on the world stage. The icing on the cake came when Brazil won the rights to host both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. (Lula wrote personal cards to all 106 voting members of the Olympic committee.)
All of this is what brought Dilma to the White House. But if it was Lula’s name that largely got her elected, it’s also what prevents Brazilians from chanting hers now. "It’s going to be a transition from Lula to himself," columnist Bittar says. "Because Dilmismo doesn’t exist yet."