Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Women Still a Small Minority in Congress, But Top Job Is Now Theirs

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 1 2010 (IPS) - Although women are a majority of the population, the electorate, and doctoral students in Brazil, have more years of schooling on average than men, and hold almost half of all formal sector jobs, they remain a tiny minority in positions of political power. But South America’s giant will now have its first woman president, Dilma Rousseff.

 Credit: Dilma Rousseff's official web site

Credit: Dilma Rousseff's official web site

She is the sixth woman in Latin America to reach the presidency. Argentina and Costa Rica are currently governed by women — Cristina Fernández and Laura Chinchilla — and Michelle Bachelet completed her term in March in Chile.

The president of Brazil’s electoral court, Ricardo Lewandowski, announced Rousseff’s victory shortly after 8:00 PM local time Sunday, just one hour and four minutes after voting ended.

The announcement set “a world record” in terms of speed, thanks to Brazil’s electronic voting system, Lewandowski said.

Rousseff, of the governing Workers Party (PT), took 56 percent of the vote, against 44 percent for José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), in Sunday’s runoff. In the first round, on Oct. 3, they garnered 46.9 and 32.6 percent, respectively.

Brazilians clearly voted for the continuity of the policies of the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, especially the social policies, whose results were reflected in the reduction of inequality and the fact that more than 20 million people were pulled out of poverty during his eight years in office.


The president-elect has pledged to eliminate extreme poverty by the end of her four-year term, in 2014. An estimated eight percent of Brazil’s 192 million people are still extremely poor. Observers say the goal is unrealistic, if taken literally, since there is a small margin of people living in absolute poverty even in rich countries.

Analysts say Rousseff’s victory was the direct result of Lula’s popularity, which stands at an unprecedented 83 percent, despite the corruption scandals that have affected his government, especially in 2005.

Allegations that family members of Rousseff’s close aide and successor as chief of staff, Erenice Guerra, were involved in an influence-peddling scheme were in the headlines in September. The scandal was one factor that kept the candidate from taking 50 percent of the vote and winning outright in the first round.

Another negative factor, apparently neutralised by Rousseff in the last few weeks, was a campaign that accused her of defending the decriminalisation of abortion, which included messages from priests and bishops and even Pope Benedict himself.

During the campaign, the candidate backtracked on earlier statements, asserted her opposition to abortion, and signed documents in which she promised the Catholic Church and evangelical faiths not to modify the current legislation, under which abortion is legal only when the mother’s life is at risk, or in cases of rape.

The opposition campaign’s exploitation of the issue, in an attempt to win over conservative religious voters, backfired when the Folha de São Paulo newspaper revealed on Oct. 16 that Serra’s wife had undergone an abortion when she was young. The newspaper report was based on information from two of Mónica Serra’s former graduate students.

Nevertheless, Rousseff “was elected because of the votes of men,” said Fátima Pacheco Jordão, an expert in public opinion at the Patricia Galvão Institute, a São Paulo based NGO dedicated to promoting the rights of women.

The latest polls, published on Saturday, indicate that her triumph was due “to male votes, to a greater extent,” Jordão told IPS, although there are no disaggregated statistics available yet from Sunday’s vote.

In the campaign, women’s activists kept a close eye on the tendencies of women voters. Jacira Melo, executive director of the Patricia Galvão Institute, told IPS ahead of the second round of voting that women tend to weigh their votes much more carefully and often do not come to a final decision until it is time to cast their ballots and they have learned everything they can about the candidates and their platforms.

Although Brazil will now have its first female president, only 10 percent of the country’s national legislators are women, and a quota law requiring that women make up 30 percent of the candidates for the lower house and city councils has had little impact over the last decade and a half.

Brazilian women gained a limited right to vote in 1932, which only applied to married women who had their husbands’ permission, widows, and single women with incomes of their own. The vote was only extended to other women in 1946. Today women comprise 51.8 percent of voters in this South American country, where voting is compulsory.

The president-elect, like Lula, has more support from men than women, which shows the difficulty of making headway in winning the female vote, despite the call to women to elect the first “presidenta” of Brazil.

A dirty campaign was waged on the Internet, with crude accusations on the subject of abortion and related to Rousseff’s past as a guerrilla fighter during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Rousseff was arrested in 1970, tortured, and held as a political prisoner for 28 months in São Paulo. After her release she moved to Porto Alegre, farther to the south, where she finished her degree in economics, became municipal secretary of finance, and later state secretary of mines and energy.

Lula named her to his cabinet as minister of mines and energy in 2003, and in 2005 he appointed her to the key post of chief of staff. Two years ago, Lula chose her as his successor, and began to work hard to transfer his popularity to her.

According to journalist and writer Eric Nepomuceno, the elections demonstrated the influence of the Internet in forming opinions and the declining impact of the radio and TV spots aired under a law requiring broadcasters to give all parties free air time for political ads, for a month and a half before the first round of voting and for three weeks ahead of the second.

Although the PSDB was defeated in the presidential elections and lost seats in the legislature, it scored important victories at the state level, winning four states — including the most populous, São Paulo and Minas Gerais — in the first round and four more on Sunday.

The Brazilian Socialist Party, a PT ally, won six of the country’s 27 states, while it expanded its parliamentary representation, becoming the most powerful of the country’s so-called medium-sized parties.

The PT also gained a larger number of seats in both the upper and lower houses, and together with its allies will ensure the new president a comfortable majority.

 
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