Challenges Ahead For Brazil’s First Female President


By Alexandra Reed and Nicky Pear

Sunday, October 31st was a historic day in Brazil, as Dilma Rousseff of the ruling Workers Party (PT) was elected as the country’s first female president. Rousseff was catapulted to electoral success following the public endorsement of the wildly popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Early polls suggested that Rousseff would win without the need for a second round of voting, but following allegations of corruption within her party and the unexpected success of Green Party candidate Marina Silva, she failed to reach the necessary 50 percent of votes in the first round. Ultimately, last Sunday’s run-off election saw Rousseff overcome the established Brazilian politician and leader of the Social Democracy Party (PSDB), José Serra, with Rousseff winning a convincing 56 percent of the vote. Though she has worked in government as Lula’s energy minister and, more recently, as his chief of staff, the presidency will be Rousseff’s first time in an elected position.

Big Shoes to Fill

Given the profound impact that Lula had on Rousseff’s campaign, speculation is rife as to the political role that the outgoing leader will continue to play from behind the scenes. Rousseff was quick to acknowledge the influence of her predecessor, stating, “I will be knocking on his door often, which, I’m sure, will always be open.”1 In her acceptance speech in Brasilia on Sunday, Rousseff reaffirmed her commitment to poverty reduction, a key issue championed by Lula. During his time in office, Lula made great strides toward this goal, largely through the implementation of hugely popular public assistance programs such as Bolsa Familia. However, Brazil still has a long way to go, suggests Rousseff: “I reiterate here my fundamental commitment: the eradication of absolute poverty and the creation of opportunities for all Brazilians…we cannot rest while Brazilians go hungry, while families are living on the streets, while poor children are abandoned.”2

Moreover, Rousseff has indicated her intention to continue Lula’s successful economic program. Such an announcement is somewhat unsurprising and signals Rousseff’s recognition that her electoral success reflects a widespread approval of the country’s economic direction under Lula, especially within Brazil’s growing middle class. As expected, a prominent member of Rousseff’s transition team will be Lula’s former finance minister, Antonio Palocci, a clear sign of continuity with the incumbent administration. Given Lula’s extraordinary popularity (over 80 percent) and widely perceived success, it would be politically astute of Rousseff not to stray too far from her predecessor’s policies.

Lula’s remarkable legacy will certainly hang over Rousseff’s presidency. It is axiomatic that many of Lula’s policies and advisors will continue to occupy an important place in Brasilia. However, the idea that Rousseff will allow the terms of her presidency to be dictated by others both patronizes her own abilities and underestimates the strength of Brazilian political institutions. Rousseff, in her own right, is renowned as a pragmatic and effective technocrat with a steely determination. It is true that she would almost certainly not be president today in the absence of Lula’s golden endorsement, but it is mistaken to assume that she will be what Medvedev is to Putin, or even what Cristina Kirchner was to Néstor. Indeed, early signs suggest that Rousseff has a number of policy options that she will seek to make her own.

Hints at Subtle Change

What will become clear early in Rousseff’s first term is the gulf in style between the outgoing and incoming presidents. According to analyst João Augusto de Castro Neves, Lula’s flamboyant nature suited his “hyperactive diplomacy” and ensured Brazil’s constant presence on the world stage. He formed a number of close bilateral relationships throughout the world and actively promoted Brazil’s role in the increasingly important BRIC economic block. On the other hand, Lula’s temperament also contributed to his toleration of corruption within his administration and a relative indifference to upholding high ethical standards.

Rousseff, in contrast, lacks Lula’s personal charisma, and she may well take a less public tack internationally. While this means “international doors won’t swing open for her as they did for her predecessor,”3 Brazil’s foreign policy itself is unlikely to change drastically, and its expanding economy will ensure international attention with or without a jet-setting leader. Furthermore, there are many, in and outside of Brazil, who will not be disappointed if Rousseff’s approach puts greater distance between Brazil and Ahmadinejad’s Iran, to which Lula paid a controversial visit earlier this year, and which has proven disruptive to Lula’s relationship with Washington.

One issue that may ultimately distinguish Rousseff from her predecessor is gender equality in Brazil. As the country’s first female president, she finds herself in a unique position to begin to chip away at the male-dominated nature of Brazilian politics. Though she largely skirted the issue of gender during her campaign, in her first statement as President-elect, Rousseff pledged to work towards greater gender equality in Brazil. She announced her intention to create an environment in which the election of a female head of state is no longer such an extraordinary accomplishment, but rather, as she explained, “something normal [that] can be repeated and expanded in companies, public institutions, and organizations that are representative of our entire society.”4 Through careful selection of her cabinet, Rousseff has the opportunity to foster female political leadership in Brazil. Though women may not make up a full 50 percent of Rousseff’s cabinet (as was the case under Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet), Rousseff would do well to have the courage to publically advance gender equality in her political appointments.

The fact that she is the country’s first female president will no doubt influence the Brazilian perception of Rousseff’s role as the modern chief executive. Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, expressed concern that Brazilians may judge Rousseff by a different standard than that used to measure her male counterparts. Lula himself declared in March, “a macho society like ours is not 100 percent ready to see a woman fight over the important job of mayor, of governor, and of the president.” 5

Notably, Rousseff also used her acceptance speech to reassert her fierce (and very much welcomed) commitment to human rights and free speech in Brazil. A victim of frequent media attacks during her campaign, Rousseff seems, perhaps, an unlikely champion of free speech. Indeed, Lula himself developed an increasingly adversarial relationship with the Brazilian press in the months leading up to the elections, as he sought to defend Rousseff against what he saw as a deliberate media campaign to undercut her popularity. In one especially controversial outburst, Lula declared, “We are the public opinion and we will not only defeat our [political] adversaries, we’ll beat some newspapers and magazines that behave as a political party.”6 Rousseff’s own pledge to guarantee Brazilians’ freedom of expression is particularly significant in light of Lula’s antagonism toward the press. As a former Marxist guerrilla who was tortured during Brazil’s military dictatorship, Rousseff has signaled that she is likely to make human rights a central theme of her administration. Whereas Lula seemed unconcerned by ideological differences in his pursuit of international allies for Brazil, Rousseff’s emphasis on freedom of speech—and human rights more broadly—has the potential to strain several of Brazil’s bilateral relationships.

Guiding Brazil into the Future

In her first elected role, Dilma Rousseff is destined to become one of the most powerful women in the world. Upon assuming office on January 1st, 2011, she will inherit a country on an exciting upward trajectory. As the region’s modern success story and a hotbed of international investment and development, Brazil is likely to become an increasingly important player on the world stage.

In 2014, Brazil will celebrate the World Cup’s return to Latin America for the first time in nearly thirty years. It will also host the Olympic games two years later, by which point it is estimated that Brazil’s economy will be the fifth largest in the world.7 As long as Brazil’s economy continues to grow as predicted, Rousseff is likely to sustain relatively high levels of popularity. However, it is important to note that as Brazil’s middle class continues to expand, the population’s priorities and subsequent expectations of the government will inevitably shift. Rousseff and the PT’s long-term success may well hinge on their ability to adapt to such changes and make continued social and economic ascension possible for Brazil’s new middle class, as well as for the millions of Brazilians that remain mired in poverty.

References for this article are available here

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associates Alexandra Reed and Nicky Pear


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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