Dilma Rousseff set to win Brazil election. Did she really need Lula to play the gender card?

Dilma Rousseff, the handpicked successor of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, headed into today's Brazil election poised to beat centrist challenger, Jose Serra, according to polls.

Felipe Dana/AP
Dilma Rousseff, presidential candidate for the Workers Party, gestures next to an electronic ballot box after voting during Brazil's presidential election runoff in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Sunday.

As Brazilians flock to the polls today, the South American giant appears set to elect is first woman president.

Dilma Rousseff, the handpicked successor of wildly popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, headed into today's runoff vote a good 10 percentage points ahead of more centrist challenger, Jose Serra, according to polls.

Ms. Rousseff would be the third woman elected president of a South American country in just the past few years, following former President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who held office from 2006 to 2010, and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, who was elected in 2007.

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But far from capitalizing on what analysts and recent polls say is a high receptivity to a woman president, the former Marxist rebel and obscure career bureaucrat has shied away from making her gender an issue in the campaign. Instead, she's allowed Mr. da Silva – known widely here simply as "Lula" – to play the gender card in a series of remarks intended to evoke either chivalry or predict voter sexism.

“I think this strategy here is a very male thing," says Arthur Ituassu, an adjunct professor of social communication at Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifícia Catholic University. "When [Rousseff] is pressed about something now, Lula says: ‘Oh c’mon, she’s a woman. Don’t put too much pressure on her.’ [It's designed] ... to remind people that in a male culture you should not put that much pressure on a female.”

He calls this strategy “intelligent,” adding that if Rousseff were to say those things, voters would see it as a sign of weakness.

So what has Lula said?

Lula plays the gender card

After Rousseff faced a tough interview in August on Brazil’s Jornal Nacional TV, Lula came to her rescue: “I hoped that for the fact that you [Rousseff] are a woman and a candidate, the interviewer would have a bit more courtesy.”

Weeks later, when an alleged scandal broke in the Brazilian media accusing members of Rousseff and Lula's Workers’ Party of hacking into tax records of the opposition, Lula again defended his candidate in chivalrous terms. "Trying to harm a woman of Dilma Rousseff's quality with lies and calumny is a crime against Brazil, and in particular, the Brazilian women," he said.

Lula has been peppering appearances with similar remarks for months.

Back in March, he spoke with Rousseff by his side, predicting “prejudice” to come. “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,” he said.

Was this protectiveness really necessary? Many political analysts and sociologists in Brazil say "no."

High opinions of women candidates

A September Global Attitudes poll conducted by Pew Research Center found that at least 70 percent of Brazilians viewed the election of a woman president positively.

Indeed, many election watchers say that Rousseff actually missed an opportunity to play up her feminine credentials as much as the Brazilian voters would accept and even welcome.

“The image of women in politics is very positive,” says Fátima Pacheco Jordão, a sociologist and polling expert with the São Paulo Patrícia Galvão Institute, who adds that polls show that Brazilians view female politicians as more honest and likely to fulfill promises.

Ms. Jordão points out that the two main female candidates in this election – Rousseff and the Green Party’s Marina Silva, who came in a strong third-place finish in the first round of voting – never went beyond the slogans of “primeira” president.

Compared with the 2006 election of Chile's popular president, Ms. Bachelet – the second democratically elected female president in Latin America, after Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro in 1990, and then followed by Argentina’s Ms. Fernández de Kirchner and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla – Rousseff does not stress women’s issues in her campaign, says Rosângela Bittar, editor-in-chief in Brasília and political columnist of the Valor Econômico newspaper.

“She’s not doing any female themes,” says Ms. Bittar. “Her themes are Lula’s programs.”

As Jordão puts it: “The voter is more mature than the female candidates.... He’s more comfortable with a woman than [the female candidates were].”

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