Foreign Policy Blogs

"Dilma Rousseff's arrival to the presidency would have a crucial impact on power and gender relations in Brazil": Q&A with Dr. Maria do Socorro Sousa Braga

The Economist‘s recent special report on Brazil emphasized the country’s remarkable achievements in the last decade and applauded what it deemed its “take-off.” The magazine’s political leanings were evident in its reluctance to give proper credit to the leftist Lula da Silva government, choosing instead to describe Lula as a lucky leader who had benefited from difficult decisions made by his predecessor, the more centrist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and from the commodity boom.

In the same issue The Economist profiles Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s chief of staff and the likely presidential candidate of his party, the Workers’ Party (PT). In the article titled “Her Master’s Voice” The Economist questions whether Rousseff is anything else than Lula’s dutiful pupil and also, despite the Lula government’s high approval ratings (north of 80 percent quoted), the fact that she would be able to build a successful campaign on stressing continuity.

Rousseff was not her party’s obvious candidate and is not as well known as other PT leaders. Her candidacy only became a possibility after Lula’s closest associates were tarnished by a Congressional vote buying scandal in 2005, the so-called Mensalão scandal. But Dilma Rousseff–an activist since the 1960s, a political prisoner under the dictatorship from 1970 until 1973, a two term secretary of energy of the Rio Grande do Sul state after the return to democracy and the country’s former secretary of energy- deserves better than being branded as the alleged “voice of her master.” In this Q&A, Doctor Maria do Socorro Sousa Braga, professor at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos and a visiting researcher at the University of Oxford talks about Rousseff’s prospects in Brazil’s presidential contest next October.

WAFP: What are the personal assets and liabilities that Rousseff would bring into the competition?

MSSB: Dilma brings administrative and managerial experience in an area [energy] that is very important for the country. She has a political past that involved participating in the struggle for democracy, and she was a political prisoner. She is a woman, and women are currently gaining more and more representation in the political arena in Brazil. They also make up more than half of the electorate. Moreover, Dilma herself comes from the upper middle class, so not only does she know this sector of the electorate but she also stands to benefit from the electorate’s aspirational drive. However, on the negative side, Dilma has no experience in electoral contests, and there is a sense that she lacks charisma. She has not held any elected position nor has she been a member of Congress. Neither is Dilma an organic candidate of her party as she is a comparatively new member of the PT, which she joined in 2000 after an internal dispute in the Democratic Labour Party [center-left]. Though the PT’s president is closely associated with Lula and with herself, she would also have to deal with the PT leaders involved in the scandals who will continue to have an influence within the party. The PT militants themselves are divided with respect to her candidacy.

WAFP: Lula enjoys very high approval ratings but an incumbent’s high approval ratings do not always help a candidate of his party as we are witnessing in Chile with Michelle Bachelet and Eduardo Frei. Will Lula’s popularity help Rousseff’s campaign?

MSSB: I think it will help a lot. Lula’s popularity will be key in Dilma having more support among popular sectors. Lula is Dilma’s mentor and her main supporter not just because she has credentials that are important in the Brazilian political context where this type of candidate (with technocratic credentials) is still preferred by many voters. Lula has been campaigning for her quite openly, and she has been increasing her share in the polls that measure voters’ intentions. I think she will be the PT’s candidate.

WAFP: Is Rousseff the candidate of continuity? What would make her administration different from Lula’s?

MSSB: Dilma would be the candidate of continuity of an administration that has maintained economic stability. She would also keep alternative energies programs and in this area there could be some innovations as she would be bringing a lot of experience. This could have not only a domestic but also an international impact. She would also maintain the main social programs, particularly Bolsa Família [The Lula government’s welfare program that provides financial aid to poor families on the condition that the children attend school and are vaccinated], the great challenge would be to find a way out for millions of poor families that live below the poverty line and that are dependent on the government for food and minimum well-being. The infrastructure projects associated with the PAC [Program of Growth Acceleration] would go on too as they are a banner for the current government. A lot of additional investment would be needed for those projects.

WAFP: If elected Rousseff would be Brazil’s first woman president. What would this mean for the country?

MSSB: If Dilma got elected this would be a very crucial event in Brazil.
Given the chauvinistic tradition in Brazilian politics, Dilma’s arrival to the presidency would have a profound effect on power, gender and social relations. It would contribute to higher self-esteem among Brazilian women, leading them to see themselves as capable of competing for any professional or political position with Brazilian men.

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