Global leadership: Brazil enters the power surge of women

Entering the ranks of global leadership, Brazil's President-elect Dilma Rousseff becomes the 18th woman head of state currently in power when she takes office in January.

By , Correspondent

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    Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, and president-elect Dilma Rousseff arrive at the G-20 working dinner, at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Nov. 11.
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Even before Dilma Rousseff takes office here Jan. 1, some are already calling her “the most powerful woman in the world” as the president-elect of this nation, home to a third of Latin Americans whose $1.5 trillion economy is bigger than that of India or Russia.

But what’s perhaps most surprising about the Oct. 31 Brazilian elections is that the sweeping victory of Ms. Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla tortured under the 1964-85 military dictatorship, had little to do with her being Brazil’s first viable female presidential candidate.

The real story here – and to a certain extent across the Latin American region, historically known for its machismo – is that Brazilian voters were largely unconcerned about electing a woman as president. In the past five years, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Chile have also elected women leaders, and now Latin America has 4 of the world’s 18 female heads of state. While they are held up as symbols of women’s rights in the nations they head, voters have said that other considerations – from their economic policies to keeping the status quo in the nation – have played a far greater role in their choices than gender.
Ms. Rousseff’s 12 percent margin of victory here had a lot to do with being the chosen successor and former chief of staff of the most popular male president, Luiz Inácio da Silva, whose approval ratings hover around 80 percent.

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At least 70 percent of Brazilians view the election of a woman president positively, according to September Global Attitudes poll by Pew Research Center. (When Americans were asked the same question in 2007 and told not to consider their feelings about candidate Hillary Clinton, just 33 percent said it would be good to elect a woman, and 55 percent said gender was not part of their reasoning.)

Indeed, Rousseff’s opponent did not directly make an issue of gender in the campaign, and analysts say that the Brazilian voters are largely comfortable and flexible with candidates who don’t fit a mold.

“Fundamentally her candidacy is the third term of Lula,” says Rosângela Bittar, the editor in chief in Brasília of the Valor Econômico journal and a political columnist. “It’s all fine. It’s the first female president of Brazil. It’s a thing to register in the dictionary. But it doesn’t register emotion. You don’t see the mobilization of women,” she adds.

In fact, Rousseff had more support in the campaign from male voters than women. A Datafolha poll on Oct. 21 showed 59 percent of male voters saying they’d choose her, compared to 52 percent of females.

Women have been advancing around the country and “this locks it with a golden key, to have a woman president,” says Francisco Abdala, after voting for Rousseff Oct. 31 in Rio de Janeiro. But he says it doesn’t matter much to him whether the candidate is a man or woman ­– he’s a Workers’ Party “militant,” as dedicated party members call themselves. He praises Lula’s charisma and says that while Rousseff lacks it, he thinks she can do as good a job as he did.

While her campaign did try to capitalize on being the first female president, in her acceptance speech, Rousseff began by touting the milestone, saying: “For the first time a woman will preside over Brazil. So I register here my first pledge after the election: to honor the Brazilian women, so that this fact, up until today not yet published, becomes a natural event.”

But despite her wide margin of victory, it doesn’t mean her presidency is going to be easy, says Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. In such a historically macho society “where the levers of power have always been dominated” by men, he said, it “is obviously a challenge” for Rousseff.

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