Dilma Rousseff, a former rebel and longtime bureaucrat who has never held elective political office, will become Brazil’s first female president following her victory Sunday in a runoff election.
With 93% of votes counted, Rousseff led challenger Jose Serra of the Social Democratic Party by 55.4% to 44.6%, an insurmountable lead.
Analysts agree that it wasn’t Workers’ Party candidate Rousseff’s record, campaign proposals or oratory that provided her with the margin of victory, which was smaller than most voter preference polls predicted. What made the difference was the strong backing of outgoing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, enormously popular for his leadership over eight years of economic growth, social gains and Brazil’s emergence as a player on the global stage.
“Lula’s plan of giving opportunity to the least favored must be defended,” said Jose Alves de Andrade, a 49-year old industrial chemist who voted in Sao Paulo. “This is very important and must go on. I don’t need help, but the disadvantaged do.”
Lula had devoted much of the last several weeks campaigning for Rousseff, who served him as chief of staff and energy minister. At his 65th birthday celebration Wednesday, he asked voters to give him Rousseff’s victory as a present.
“There was no good reason to vote against her. People throughout society are better off and they feel it,” said Terry McCoy, Latin American studies professor emeritus at University of Florida. “That made it difficult for Serra.”
Although she will enter office on the crest of the strongest economic growth in two decades, the nation’s lowest unemployment rate on record and an even stronger congressional majority than Lula had, Rousseff must soon grapple with several difficult issues.
Brazil faces enormous infrastructure challenges to deal with its rapid economic growth. Although the country has the highest tax rate in Latin America, money is scarce for needed power plants, roads and ports.
With inflation an issue, her management of the economy will come under intense scrutiny. Observers are keen to see if Rousseff stays with central bank chief Henrique Meirelles, a former Fleet Bank executive who is credited with keeping Brazil’s economy on course.
And with Brazil set to emerge as a major oil exporter with the development of the so-called pre-salt offshore fields, Rousseff must set policy on royalties distribution and whether the government takes greater control over the production of crude, said William Smith, international studies professor at the University of Miami.
Rousseff will have to decide whether to maintain the military buildup begun under Lula and choose a winner in a politically sensitive $3.6-billion jet fighter contract fought over by companies in the United States, France and Sweden. She may also put her imprint on Brazil’s ambitious social policy that under Lula saw the growth of “conditional cash transfer” programs that have helped reduce extreme poverty and stoke consumerism.
Rousseff, 62, is the daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father and schoolteacher mother. While studying economics in university, she joined an urban guerrilla group called National Liberation Command to oppose the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. She was jailed and tortured in the early 1970s.
Serra ran an aggressive campaign last month and criticized Lula for so blatantly using the prestige of his office for electoral purposes. But his doom probably was sealed when he failed to get the endorsement of the first round’s third-place finisher, Green Party candidate Marina Silva, who attracted 20% of the ballots on Oct. 3.
Special correspondents Soares reported from Sao Paulo and Kraul from Bogota.