While the American media pores over the incompetence, ignorance and downright lunacy of our latest dismal crop of female candidates—Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, et al—they’ve mostly ignored the outstanding female candidates in an unprecedented election playing out in South America’s largest country.
On October 31st, Brazilians will go to the polls and likely elect as president Dilma Rousseff, 62. An election earlier this month failed to deliver her the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a run-off—more on her competition in a minute—but she received 46% and is polling well ahead of her opponent, José Serra. Rousseff would be the third female president in South America, after Chile’s Michelle Bachelet and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father and a Brazilian mother, Rousseff is a economist by training and a close political ally—some describe her as a protégée—of the immensely popular (and populist) Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. Like Lula and many members of his Workers’ Party, Rousseff comes from a Marxist-socialist background and participated in guerilla resistance to the the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985. She was captured and tortured in 1970—and experience which she has discussed openly, even naming the men who tortured her—and imprisoned until 1972. After her release, she began a career in politics, serving as Treasury Secretary and Secretary of Energy at the local and state level before Lula named her Energy Minister in 2002, and then Chief of Staff in 2005.
The third runner-up in the October 3 election, who captured 19.4% of the vote, was another remarkable woman, Marina Silva, 57. Silva was raised in the remote, rural state of Acre, daughter of rubber-tappers, both of whom died before she was 16. Silva rose to prominence as an organized labor, social justice and environmental activist. She served in Brazil’s Senate, then joined Lula’s cabinet as his Environmental Minister, but resigned in 2008 and quit the Workers’ Party to join the Green Party—a protest against what she saw as the Lula administration’s increasing prioritization of business interests over anti-deforestation and clean energy policies. If she had won, she would have been Brazil’s first black president.
The Guardian took note of the historic candidacy of Silva and Rousseff:
Fátima Pacheco Jordão, a Brazilian sociologist from the Patrícia Galvão Institute, said it was “absolutely unprecedented” to have two competitive female candidates running for the presidency. “I think it brings us a great potential for change,” said Jordão, adding that voters saw in a female candidate the possibility of “new values and new ways of doing politics”.
“The historic absence of women in politics has meant that society has been able to see in … [Rousseff] something that represents an advance, that represents a correction of Brazilian politics in terms of corruption, equality and the gender divide,” she said.
“I’m convinced that a great part of Dilma’s success is down to her being a woman, and not just about the support of President Lula,” she added.
The role of women in Brazil’s 2010 elections is not just about the candidates…analysts say female support, particularly in the south-eastern states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, will prove decisive. “The female vote is absolutely strategic for defining whether there will be a second round or not,” said Jordão. “If Dilma can win over female voters in these states she’ll seal it in the first round. The women will decide.”
Having failed to take the presidency in the first round, it still seems likely that Rousseff will clinch it in the second round, inheriting a thriving economy and great popular support from the departing Lula. Her slogan is “For Brazil To Keep On Changing”, and she and Marina Silva are providing an excellent template for how the rest of the world can keep on changing too.