Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Workshop: Elections Highlight Brazil's Transformation

November 10, 2010

The recent presidential election in booming Brazil broke racial, media, and gender barriers, according to a workshop hosted recently at the Institute.

Marina Silva, a black female candidate from the Green Party, garnered nearly 20 percent of votes in the first round. The web was a new, key force – unleashing influential videos that ranged from Lady Gaga remixes promoting Dilma Rousseff to parodies of her opponent Jose Serra. 

And the second round culminated with the October 31 election of Lula’s protégée Rousseff – who will be the first woman to preside over Brazil. 

“Brazil used to be called a country of drunks,” said Peter Kingstone, from the University of Connecticut, speaking in the McKinney Conference Room. “I think it’s remarkable that we don’t even have to remark on the fact that this was a normal election. We’re talking about a totally different country.” 

But he and several of the other speakers lamented lingering social inequality, corruption, and a commodities-dependent economy during the talk, titled “The Brazilian Elections: Implications for the Future of Brazil and Latin America.”

Kingstone spoke alongside Sonia Alvarez, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and John French, of Duke University. 

According to French, Brazilian politics resemble a journey from the merely unlikely to the improbable to the utterly impossible. The 2002 election of current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a union organizer from a poor background, was already a surprise. Still more amazing was Lula’s success in office, he added. 

“Even Serra admitted it,” French said to laughter. “Serra said: Lula is above good and evil – he’s an institution.”

Rousseff’s election was the apotheosis of Brazil’s remarkable political evolution, French added, as she was initially considered an outsider to the Workers’ Party (PT). Her triumph was not simply inherited from Lula, he said, though the relative popularity of programs like Bolsa Família bolstered her campaign. 

However, the impact of Rousseff’s election on female representation in politics should not be overstated, according to Alvarez. Neither Silva nor Rousseff made gender issues central to their campaigns and women remain underrepresented in the Brazilian political arena.  

“Nevertheless, it’s certainly a sign of progressive democratization,” Alvarez said.

Another sign of Brazil’s flourishing is that both Rousseff and Serra proposed similar policy in a bid to maintain the country’s boom, according to Institute Associate Professor Gianpaolo Baiocchi, who moderated the workshop. “There was a real consensus of a kind of center-left proposal,” Baiocchi said, aimed at prolonging the rise of the lower-middle class. 

The ascendance of this class was evident on the campaign trail, Baiocchi added: “They’re talking about the butcher being able to buy a car.”

The panel was co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Watson Institute.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11