On New Year’s Day, Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to assume the presidency of Brazil. An economist and longtime political activist, Rousseff, 63, defeated her center-right opponent with 56% of the vote in a second-round election held October 31, securing a third consecutive term for the Workers Party (PT). Her election reflects the massive popularity of outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who handpicked Rousseff in 2009 as his successor before leaving office with an unprecedented 80% approval rating. During the electoral campaign, Lula emphasized that Rousseff had stood side by side with him in carrying out a bold set of government initiatives to move millions of Brazilians out of absolute poverty and into the working classes.
Rousseff’s opponent in the runoff election, José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, ran an uneven campaign with the support of the far-right Democratic Party and the former pro-Soviet Communists of the Popular Socialist Party. Serra emphasized his experience as a former governor and mayor, and as a minister under former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In his first TV ads, Serra embraced Lula’s social reform program and pledged to improve it. He also rebaptized himself “Joe” Serra in an attempt to formulate a more populist image. At the same time, he distanced himself from Cardoso, who remains unpopular a decade after his two terms in office.
Before the runoff election, Rousseff faced not only Serra but also Marina Silva, a former trade union leader, environmental activist, senator from the rubber-producing state of Acre, longtime PT supporter, and avowed evangelical Christian. She served as environmental minister during Lula’s second administration but resigned in 2008 in protest of an Amazonian development project. Her campaign on the Green Party ticket emphasized combating deforestation, as well as integrity and accountability in government. Pointing to her humble roots and strong moral beliefs, Silva offered herself as the honest and principled alternative to Rousseff’s leftist coalition and Serra’s conservative policies.
Silva’s appeal to integrity was perhaps most effective against Rousseff in the last weeks before the first election round on October 3, when Rousseff’s popularity was hurt by ongoing accusations that the PT-led government continued to be involved in corruption schemes. To begin with, Rousseff’s predecessor as chief of staff, José Dirceu, left the position in 2005 when he was accused of participating in a congressional vote-buying operation. Then Rousseff’s own chosen successor as chief of staff in Lula’s government became embroiled in an influence-peddling scandal, causing Serra to wage a series of hard-hitting attacks that attempted to link Rousseff to the PT’s corruption scandals.
In the end, Rousseff fell three points short of victory, garnering almost 47% of the vote; Serra, 33%; and Silva, a surprising 19%. How did Silva pick up an unexpected six points in the final week of the campaign, spoiling Rousseff’s first-round victory? Brazilian analysts adduced several reasons. First, erroneous tales about Rousseff’s past as a Marxist revolutionary, speculations about her private life, and videos predicting an apocalyptic future for Brazil if she were elected crisscrossed the Internet, unchecked by any public debate or objective scrutiny. Second, evangelical churches called on their congregations to support Silva because of her opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, winning unexpected adherents. Third, many left-leaning voters, disappointed with the corruption scandals associated with the PT, cast a protest vote for Silva. And finally, her environmental message won over many voters.
The Rousseff campaign backtracked on her position on abortion, stating ambiguously that she was personally against the practice but saw it as a public health issue. Similarly, the campaign announced that Rousseff opposed discrimination against gays and lesbians, but thought the issue of same-sex marriage ought to be decided by legislative bodies, not the executive. Meanwhile, Silva stayed neutral in the second round, endorsing neither candidate. The question of abortion soon receded, however, after the press discovered that Serra’s wife had had an abortion in Ithaca, New York, when her husband was completing his doctorate at Cornell University.
Rousseff’s political biography also became a controversial campaign issue. As a young student in Belo Horizonte in the late 1960s, she joined the National Liberation Command (COLINA), an underground revolutionary organization that supported the Cuban strategy of armed struggle to overthrow the Brazilian military dictatorship, which came to power in a 1964 coup. Arrested in São Paulo in January 1970 and tortured, Rousseff served three years in prison for violating the National Security Act. Brazil’s mainstream press, which almost unanimously supported Serra’s candidacy, portrayed Rousseff as too linked to her revolutionary past and to her former comrades, supposedly making her an unsuitable presidential candidate. Although Serra had also been a part of the radical left in the 1960s, his campaign portrayed him as a moderate who merely opposed the undemocratic nature of the military regime.
During the last two weeks of the campaign both sides stepped up criticisms on their opponent, adopting polarizing tactics that many analysts attributed to excessive influences of U.S.-style attack-ad electioneering. But in the end, even a last-minute message from Pope Benedict XVI calling on Brazilian clergy to support candidates aligned with the Catholic Church’s beliefs—a clear endorsement of Serra—failed to turn the tide. Rousseff handily out-polled her opponent, with more than 55 million votes to his near 44 million.
Many conservative journalists and political analysts interpreted Rousseff’s victory as the voice of the uninformed and uneducated dispossessed, especially the poor from the north and northeast, who voted overwhelmingly for Lula’s candidate because of their dependency on the government’s poverty alleviation programs. Implicit in this discourse is a notion that poor people voted narrowly for their own interests, while those who supported Serra voted with the best interests of the whole nation in mind. The news media reinforced this vision of a country divided, using maps of Brazil showing the north and northeast, plus the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, in red, and the states of the south and southeast, including São Paulo, in blue. This oversimplified, but graphic, description of the electoral results obscured the fact that Rousseff picked up significant support throughout the country.
The new president faces many challenges. Although the Brazilian economy remains robust, Rousseff has indicated that the new administration will have to cut back on government spending to avoid a budget deficit. Reducing successful government programs designed to address chronic social and economic inequality might erode her popularity. Focusing on domestic problems might draw Rousseff away from the Lula administration’s initiatives to expand Brazil’s international prestige and importance as an emerging global player. Rousseff also faces the problem of holding her broad electoral coalition together.
Vice President Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party will likely play a more significant role in the new administration than Lula’s vice president, José Alencar, forcing Rousseff to cut more political deals and make more accommodations to retain a working mega-majority in Congress and among the different ministries that will be divided up among her political allies. The promise to root out corruption and influence peddling in the new administration, if successful, will clearly strengthen the PT’s moral authority. Lula may be of help in this regard, although he has pledged to withdraw from day-to-day politics to allow his successor to govern without his interference; it remains to be seen if he will resist the impulse to again involve himself publicly in national politics.
Throughout the campaign, Rousseff’s opponents pointed to the fact that she had never been elected to public office as a sign that she lacked the political experience to be a competent president. Although she is less charismatic and seasoned in day-to-day maneuvering than her predecessor, anyone who is familiar with her long trajectory in left-wing politics knows she is by no means a political neophyte.
James N. Green is Professor of Brazilian History and Culture at Brown University and author of We Cannot Remain Silent: Opposition to the Brazilian Military Dictatorship in the United States (Duke University Press, 2010) and Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil (University of Chicago Press, 1999).