Dilma Rousseff wins Brazil election, is nation's first female president

Dilma Rousseff won 56 percent of the vote in a Brazil election runoff after running on a campaign promising continuity with incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's policies.

Ricardo Stuckert/AP
In this photo provided by Brazil's Presidency, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (l.) and Brazil's newly elected leader Dilma Rousseff, make a sign of victory, at the Alvorada palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, on Nov. 1.

Brazil elected its first female president Sunday, with voters choosing Dilma Rousseff to carry on the progressive policies of outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Ms. Rousseff, representing the left-of-center Workers’ Party, won 56 percent of the vote in the runoff election, 12 percent more than José Serra of the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party. Rousseff won the first round in early October but failed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote.

Rousseff was the hand-picked successor of Mr. da Silva and her election means more of the same for the world’s eighth biggest economy and fifth biggest country in terms of land and population.

The difference between the two leaders will come not in policy but in management style, says David Fleischer, the author of Brazil Focus, a weekly journal of politics. While da Silva, known widely as "Lula," chose to delegate, Rousseff will be more hands on, says Mr. Fleischer.

"I think she is going to be involved a lot more than Lula was involved," Fleischer says. "Lula had people stand in for him and Dima was like [his] like prime minister or president adjunct. She is known as a manager."

Vote for continuity

During Lula's two terms as president, Brazil's economy expanded and it was one of the few major nations not to feel the full brunt of the world economic crisis. A high school dropout and former union leader, Lula also reduced the gap between rich and poor and gave the country an increased prominence on the world stage.

Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla turned civil servant, offered continuity as her trump card, and it proved to be an effective one given that Lula has approval ratings of 80 percent. He is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third consecutive term.

“I voted for Dilma [Rousseff] because I wanted continuity,” says Severino da Silva, a 42-year old forklift driver who voted in São Paulo. “Lula brought more jobs, more opportunities, he stabilized the economy. I want her to do more.”

Rousseff to target poverty

Although Rousseff gave little details about what she might do differently during a largely lukewarm campaign, she laid out her priorities in her victory speech Sunday night. In it, she promised to make eradicating poverty her main goal. Under Lula, 24 million Brazilians have been sprung from absolute poverty and 31 million have entered the middle class, according to government figures.

“I am restating my key commitment, to eradicate poverty and create opportunities for all Brazilians,” she said in her victory speech. “I said in the campaign that those who need the most help; children, the young, the handicapped, the unemployed and the elderly will have all my attention and I reaffirm that commitment now.”

Her task will be made easier by her coalition’s majorities in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. The 10-party alliance led by her Worker’s Party has 58 of 81 seats in the upper house and more than 300 of the 513 seats in the lower house.

Challenges ahead

Although the country is on the up – it is expected to grow 7 percent this year – there are still huge challenges ahead.

Brazil’s health system is weak, its schools and universities are poor, and its justice system is inefficient. Tax, labor, union, and political reforms have been on the table for years. Corruption and violent crime remain high.

Brazil desperately needs to add infrastructure to prepare the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Extending a hand to her opponent and calling on all Brazilians to rally behind her, Rousseff also made special mention of her historic feat. “I would really like mothers and fathers of little girls to look them in the eye today and tell them, 'Yes, a woman can!' ”

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