First Female President Elected in Brazil


Brazilian voters have elected their first female President, Dilma Rousseff, who ran for national office for the first time in this campaign.

A detailed profile of Rouseff by the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) states that her story is “intertwined with the last half-century of Brazil’s history. She is the daughter of an immigrant, and has been a guerrilla, a torture victim, an economist, an energy minister and the president’s chief of staff.” 

Rousseff, 62, will succeed President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was barred by Brazil’s constitution from seeking a third consective term.  She has said she will “work to lift millions of people out of poverty” while in office, declaring, “We cannot rest while Brazilians are going hungry.”

She’ll be sworn in on January 1, 2011.

Rousseff’s positions on women’s rights and choice have become blurred during the campaign.  She began as a strong advocate for reproductive and sexual health and rights, but shifted during the campaign, at least in part due to pressure from the church.

Brazil's president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, speaks in Brasilia on Sunday after winning the presidential election. Brazil’s president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, speaks in Brasilia on Sunday after winning the presidential election. (Bruno Domingos/Reuters)

These and other issues were discussed in a detailed article published in June by RH Reality Check, in which Sonia Correa, a researcher and Founder of the leading Brazilian feminist organization SOS Corpo – Instituto Feminista para Democracia, discussed the shifting dynamics of abortion politicis in the country.

More recently, Correa wrote an update to that article specifically focused on Rousseff, whose victory even as of last month was in question.

Correa documents Rousseff’s shifts during the election from solid support for reproductive and sexual health and rights to a much-narrowed position, crafted to cater to the Catholic Church and the far right.  Rather than attempting to summarize a complex and rich discussion, I’ve included portions below or you can read the full paper here.
Since June 2010, the debate on abortion has continued to be interwoven with the complex political dynamics of the national election period in Brazil. Even before the campaign was in full-fledged mode, after August, abortion had already become one of the main issues. Firstly because, quite early on, the press called upon the candidates to manifest their views on the subject, which made it clear that none of the main candidates were in favour of legal abortion and in most cases their positions had shifted, sometimes dramatically. Marina Silva from the Green Party, who belongs to the Assembly of God, had quite early on declared herself to be against abortion for religious reasons. Although she has been pressured by sectors who support her and are in favor of abortion, she has maintained the position that the question should be resolved in a referendum.
Dilma Roussef, from Lula’s Workers Party, who led the pool until the first round of the
presidential run-off on 3 October 2010, had previously declared in Marie Claire magazine in early 2009 that abortion was always a difficult decision, but that it should be considered a major public health problem and therefore legalized. By May 2010, she had moved towards a much more careful position to say, in consonance with the III National Plan for Human Rights, that “abortion is a matter of public health services”. However, this “strategic” retreat has not spared her from pressure and attacks by dogmatic religious leaders, including Catholic bishops, which led her to have a closed conversation with the President of the National Bishops Conference, in August, 2010.
Since then, Dilma’s previous open support for legal abortion has been extensively used by the third candidate, José Serra, from the PSDB (the social democratic party) and others to attack her. Serra himself, who as the then Minister of Health in 1998 signed the Ministry of Health protocol that ensured access to abortion under the current law, has totally regressed to an openly anti-abortion position hidden behind a discourse of supporting of “maternal health”. In July he declared that if abortion was legalized a “carnage would occur”. As if this was not enough, his wife made a public declaration saying that Dilma was not trustworthy because she supported legal abortion and would “kill small children” (a popular saying used to describe evil people).

In the last week of the first round of the campaign, the scenario was such that only two presidential candidates from minority left-wing parties openly support legal abortion. But where it really counts – among the candidates most likely to win − abortion had become, as never before, a major, divisive electoral issue. Polls showed that in a short space of time, Dilma lost her considerable advantage over the other candidates for many reasons, not least a corruption scandal that erupted in early September 2010. But various analysts discussing the electoral scenario today included “the abortion issue” as one of the factors behind her losing ground. Two days before the elections, she sat with representatives of the National Pastors Conference and Catholic church representatives to discuss rumours about her position on abortion and gay marriage. She then declared herself personally against abortion, but defended public health care for women who have undergone abortion. Marina Silva declared that Dilma Roussef had changed her position for “electoral convenience”, at which point the issue exploded in the major media. In addition, large paid advertisements for “pro-life” Congress candidates were posted, in colour, in the main pages of some of the major newspapers, and read: VOTE AGAINST ABORTION, in just those words.

The “abortion issue”, surprisingly enough, has also affected Marina, who was the main
beneficiary of the votes Dilma lost, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte. However, in the last week of campaign one of the better known evangelical pastors in Rio publicly declared that he was not supporting her anymore because she was “lying about her views on abortion”. He claimed that her proposal of a referendum was a mere smokescreen to hide her intention to legalize the procedure. And he shifted his vote to Serra.

The results of the election on 3 October were Dilma 46%, Serra 33%, and Marina 19%, making a second round necessary, and campaigning started off with abortion as the key issue. Between 4 October and 13 October, practically no other issue has been systematically debated in the press, neither economic nor social policies, let alone environmental challenges or corruption. Dilma and Serra spent the first week accusing each other of being the one who was more in favour of abortion. High level people in the PT, Dilma’s party, suggested that legalization of abortion should be eliminated from the party’s programme. All the major weekly magazines had abortion and the election as their cover stories.

On 11 October, Datafolha, one of the major national institutes of public opinion, released the results of a poll carried out after the first round election results were in, which indicated that abortion was not the major reason why votes had been shifting away from Dilma to other candidates, particularly to Marina. Instead, the poll suggested that corruption issues had been more important as negative factors against the two main contenders, but affecting Dilma’s support most.

Even so, the main actors involved, in particular the religious dogmatic forces have not let the issue go away. On 15 October, Dilma, President Lula and the coordinators of her campaign had a closed meeting with the Evangelic leadership in Congress, after which the press announced that she would soon be making a public announcement that she would not support legal abortion, same-sex marriage or the pending provision on criminalization of homophobia. The religious leaders participating in the meeting have also declared that they had strong requested measures against prostitution and drug use.

Subsequently, in a turbulent TV interview, Dilma said the commitment being discussed was not to send any law provision for abortion legal reform. She also clarified that in her view civil union is different from “marriage”, which is a religious matter and explained that the law criminalizing homophobia must be changed because the text as it is now infringes upon freedom of religious expression. Next day some press vehicles informed that she was reluctant to sign the commitment in what concerns abortion, while other announced that Serra had made explicit his support to same sex civil union. Finally on October 15th late afternoon Dilma made public a letter that makes clear that: 1) she is against abortion and will not take any initiative to change existing laws in this domain, 2) her government will emphasize policies and programs to protect the family. See the letter.Given the virulent tone of the campaign, its continuous flares and attacks on both sides, it is very difficult to make any prognostic of what may happen until October 31st. On the otherhand, a few glimmers of light can be found in this dark scenario. Back in July 2010, duringthe 11th Latin American and Caribbean Regional Conference on Women, sponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Brazilian delegation pushed for a declaration from the meeting re-affirming Cairo and Beijing language on abortion.

Decriminalization of Abortion, there were a wide range of events in Brazil, and a number of forward-looking documents were launched, including a new model bill aimed at legalizing abortion. This bill, initiated by CLADEM, the Feminist Network on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and the Commission on Citizenship and Reproduction, is also supported by a number of other organizations and has been presented to society as a basis for discussion that may lead to a legal reform bill in the legislature in 2011. More importantly, the electoral climate, though extremely worrying and virulent, has opened a window of opportunity for those in favour of legal abortion and concerned with the preservation of the principles and practice of secularism to express their views strongly in the press and otherwise.

On October 13th a group of activists and researchers launched a public petition calling for a sane and reasonable debate on abortion. Its lemma re-captures the ICPD imagination: Abortion must be legal, safe and rare.

The petition was signed by more than 3.000 people in less than 48 hours and is now circulating internationally. On October 15th few hours before Dilmas’s letter was made public, the Brazilian Association for LGBT rights also delivered an open letter to presidential candidates calling for the full respect to secular values and
commitments to the human rights of those whose sexuality do not conform with dominant heterosexual norms.

As turbulent and worrying as the climate may be, this is clearly just another chapter in the long, winding and difficult road of making abortion legal and safe and sexual rights, broadly speaking, a reality in Brazil. While it is certainly premature to predict that Brazil will or will not become another Nicaragua, it is quite clear that Brazilian electoral politics are becoming similar to what has been witnessed in the United States over the last two decades.

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