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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The largest Latin American nation has elected its first female president.
Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT) cruised to victory over José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) in the Oct. 31 runoff election to select Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s successor.
Rousseff received 55,752,529 (56.05%) of votes and Serra, 43,711.388 (43.95%).
Running for office for the first time, Rousseff, the former mining minister and chief of staff under Lula, defeated Serra, the former mayor and governor of São Paulo and minister of planning and health in former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s administration.
Rousseff said her government’s first task will be to honor Brazilian women during her first official speech as president-elect from a hotel in Brasília on the evening of Oct. 31.
“So that this [election of a female president], which was until today thought impossible, will be transformed into a natural event that can be repeated and amplified in companies, in civil institutions, in representative entities throughout all of society,” Rousseff said.
Rousseff was able to give her victory speech because of the success of the country’s voting system. Brazil beat the world record in vote counting. The Superior Electoral Court (TSE) needed just three hours and four minutes to announce Rousseff the winner.
Rousseff, who had Lula’s backing, also pledged to eradicate poverty and asked for the help of business leaders, workers, civil entities, universities, the press, governors and mayors.
The president-elect said Brazil has to keep its open markets for international trade. She promised fiscal responsibility and to maintain economic stability.
“We will take care of our economy with total responsibility,” Rousseff said. “The Brazilian people will no longer accept inflation with irresponsible action that leads to eventual disequilibrium, or that governments spend more than that which is sustainable.”
Rousseff opened the doors for more dialogue with her political adversaries and sent a clear message against corruption.
“I will be rigid in the defense of public interests in all levels of my government,” she said. “The political and economic bodies will work with my support, without persecuting opponents or protecting friends.”
But her most emotional words during her 25-minute speech were directed toward Lula.
“Working closely with him all these years has left me with the exact definition of a just government and of a leader who is passionate about his country and his people,” she said. “The happiness that I feel today for my victory is mixed with emotions [of sadness] over his leaving.”
Lula’s accomplishments led Rousseff to victory
Ricardo Ismael, a professor of sociology and politics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, said two major reasons propelled Rousseff to victory: being connected to a government that in recent years increased consumption among lower-income families, and having Lula as an electoral link.
Lula’s government was cited as “excellent” or “good” by 83% of those surveyed in a Datafolha poll on Oct. 26.
But female voters don’t exactly feel represented by the president-elect, Ismael says.
“I think she is leaning on one man in particular, going against the idea that a woman really won,” he says. “In fact, Lula is the one who won. Without him, she wouldn’t have even been a candidate. She has no background for [the presidency] from a political point of view.”
Lula’s unyielding support of Rousseff detracted from her victory because Lula played such a major role in getting the first female president elected, Ismael says.
“This aspect takes a bit away from the idea that now we have witnessed the birth of a new era in Brazilian politics, when a woman can build up her candidacy and follow her own trajectory,” he says.
Rousseff will take office on Jan. 1, 2011 with the largest congressional base ever achieved by a president, a byproduct of her candidacy’s attracting numerous parties. The parties of her So That Brazil Continues to Change coalition boasts 311 deputies out of 513 congressional members, and 48 out of 81 senators.
Runoff considered the most aggressive since 1989
Rousseff didn’t earn the 50% plus one vote needed to win the presidency in the first round of voting on Oct. 3, sending her into a runoff election against Serra, who placed second.
The campaigning leading to the second-round vote started peacefully, with Serra not attacking Lula’s widely popular administration.
But the race heated up during the final weeks, making the runoff the most aggressive since the redemocratization of the country in 1989, which culminated with Fernando Collor de Mello’s defeating Lula in the presidential election.
In September, Serra denounced the alleged violation of the privacy of those close to him, including his daughter Verônica Serra. He also continuously mentioned the allegedly corrupt activities by Erenice Guerra’s family members. Guerra was formerly Rousseff’s assistant and became Lula’s chief of staff when Rousseff stepped down to focus on her campaign.
But Serra had to shake off accusations of illegal campaign contributions involving São Paulo’s Highway Development SA (DERSA) former director, Paulo Vieira de Souza.
The campaign battle reached the streets.
Supporters from both sides clashed in Rio de Janeiro on Oct. 20. Among the confusion, objects were hurled at Serra, who was briefly hospitalized after being hit in the head with an unidentified object.
Rousseff also fought against rumors of her supposed pro-choice views, while Serra tried to quell rumors he would end federal programs like Bolsa Família if elected.
Expectation of victory
Rousseff demonstrated confidence in victory as early as the morning of Oct. 31.
Surrounded by reporters, she made a brief speech during breakfast with PT members and representatives from the So That Brazil Continues to Change coalition.
“If I am elected, it will begin a new era of democracy,” she said. “It will be expected that people who take office to lead the country have republican feelings and democratic plans. I will govern for everybody. I will speak with all Brazilians, without exception.”
Rousseff only focused on the positives of her campaign.
“I want to emphasize today the good times, the constructive part of this campaign: the fact that it brought millions of Brazilians together to one position,” she said. “[A democratic way of life] is very important because it assures the Brazilian population … to use their power to determine who will be the president of the Republic.”
At Santos Dumond School in Porto Alegre, capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Rousseff is registered to vote, the president-elect was greeted with enthusiasm by her supporters.
Before heading on to the Salgado Filho International Airport, where she boarded a plane for Brasília, the president-elect visited her daughter Paula and grandson Gabriel.
In Brasília, Rousseff waited for the results with PT members, including Tarso Genro, the governor-elect of Rio Grande do Sul.
Genro accompanied Rousseff throughout Election Day. He pointed out that Brazil had passed a new cultural landmark in national politics by electing a female president, and that she will follow the same path that marked President Lula’s two terms.
Cristine Pires and Patrícia Knebel contributed to this piece from Porto Alegre.