In a First, Brazil Elects a Woman as President
Neco Varella/EFE, via European Pressphoto Agency
Dilma Rousseff after voting on Sunday in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
Published: October 31, 2010
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Dilma Rousseff was elected the country’s first female president on Sunday, as Brazilians voted strongly in favor of continuing the economic and social policies of the popular president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Ms. Rousseff, who served as Mr. da Silva’s chief of staff and energy minister, joins a growing wave of democratically elected female leaders in the region and the world in the past five years, including Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina and Angela Merkel in Germany.
Ms. Rousseff, 62, defeated José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo, with 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent, official numbers showed.
In choosing Ms. Rousseff, who has no elected political experience, voters sent a message that they preferred to give the governing Workers Party more time to broaden the successful economic policies of Mr. da Silva, whose government deepened economic stability and lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and into the lower middle classes.
In her victory speech, Ms. Rousseff pledged to focus on eradicating poverty, which she described as an “abyss that still keeps us from being a developed nation.” She has indicated that she favors giving the state greater control over the economy, especially the oil industry, potentially steering the country further to the left.
After serving two four-year terms, Mr. da Silva was barred from seeking re-election, and he hand-picked Ms. Rousseff to be his successor, campaigning tirelessly for her.
“He treated this campaign like a re-election campaign,” a sociologist, Demétrio Magnoli, said on television on Sunday night.
Though she could not match Mr. da Silva’s charisma, Ms. Rousseff won Sunday by dominating the north and northeastern parts of the country, as well as the key swing states Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
Voters who supported her in São Paulo, where Mr. Serra won, said Sunday that they were willing to look past her lack of experience. “If it were only about experience I would never vote for her,” said Denilson Quintino, 43, an electrician. “But she has a good team behind her. Today the country is much better off because of the Lula government. He did more for me than any other president.”
Mr. Serra, who also ran for president in 2002 and has a long elected political resume, had pledged to focus on improving education and the public health care system. He also indicated he would give private companies a greater role in developing a newly discovered oil region that could transform the country into a global oil power.
Ms. Rousseff promised to build millions of low-income homes, expand a community-policing program pioneered in Rio de Janeiro, and substantially improve the quality of education and public health care. In the final debate between the two candidates on Friday, she called education — an area in which Brazil has lagged many other nations — “the most important issue facing Brazil.”
Despite the strong support of Mr. da Silva, the election went to a second round when Marina Silva, the Green Party candidate and former environmental minister under Mr. da Silva, pulled in 19 percent of the vote. Many voters liked Ms. Silva’s policies on sustainable development and her anti-abortion stance.
Ms. Rousseff struggled with conservative religious voters amid accusations from the opposition that she had flip-flopped on her stance on abortion. And she lost support when her successor as chief of staff was accused of peddling influence with companies seeking contracts and loans with the government and state development bank.
But Mr. Serra struggled to articulate a consistent campaign message and, with Mr. da Silva in her camp, Ms. Rousseff, a twice-divorced grandmother who opposed and was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in her early 20s as part of a militant group, proved too tough to beat.
Myrna Domit contributed reporting.