Women

07.18.14

Will Brazil Re-elect President Rousseff?

Has hosting the World Cup helped or hurt the woman in charge?

 This week, on the heels of the World Cup, leaders of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) held a summit meeting in Fortaleza, Brazil. At this meeting, the leaders of these ascendant powers agreed to form an international development bank to challenge the dominance of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, described the New Development Bank (NDB)—and accompanying emergency reserve fund—as the first steps towards a "more just and inclusive world order.”  

Even Bloomberg View’s Mac Margolis, whose coverage of the BRIC summit referred to President Rousseff’s “power hair” before he bothered to discuss her actual power in the room, had to admit that “Rousseff looked poised and presidential, at ease in the company of fellow giants.”  

Indeed, Dilma Rousseff continues to position herself as an effective and powerful world leader. Having pulled off a smooth and successful global sporting event (despite the disastrous outcome for Brazil’s own team), she now faces the home stretch of her own hard-fought contest for re-election as president of the world’s seventh largest nation. Opinions seem divided on how the World Cup hosting experience is affecting Rousseff’s chances, with Election Day, October 5, rapidly approaching.  

One can see Rousseff and the World Cup through two opposing lenses. Naysayers point to demonstrations at the beginning of the tournament and at harsh chants directed at the president during the final game. Most who complained bitterly about the billions Brazil spent on the event forgot or dismissed the point that Rousseff inherited the World Cup (and the 2016 Olympics) from her predecessor, President Lula da Silva; Rousseff took office after both of these commitments were made. It was her responsibility to ensure that Brazil would fulfill these tremendous obligations to the international community—and whether Brazil could do it was the subject of skepticism and ridicule right up to the last minute. Rousseff deserves credit for doing what many regarded as impossible. Her objective for the World Cup was to show the world a modern Brazil, a nation able to do business on a global scale. In this, she succeeded.  

Looking through a rosier lens, one might start with the powerful image of Rousseff seated next to Angela Merkel during the final match—was anyone else struck by the sight of two female heads of state, one heading one of the most powerful nations in the world, the other leading one of the world’s great rising countries, side by side at an event where, even a decade ago, such a tableau would have been almost unimaginable? And if the president of the country battling Germany at the final, Argentina, had been in attendance, she too would have added to this picture of the increasingly female face of international leadership.  

Rousseff faces an electorate that seems as bifurcated about her leadership as the World Cup commentary was. It is true, of course, that Brazil’s economy is not where it was four years ago, when Rousseff was elected. Growth is down and inflation is up. But what many, inside and outside Brazil, are forgetting are the 50 million voters (in a nation where voting is mandatory) who have been lifted out of extreme poverty on her watch. Those who chanted slurs at the Cup were wealthy enough to have attended the tournament. While there have been several large rallies protesting the lack of social investment, the truth is that the majority of those demonstrators and organizers are members of the growing Brazilian middle class.  

Rousseff’s chief rival in the presidential race, a fiscal conservative, can hardly be expected to make social programs a priority. Aecio Neves, from the right-leaning PSDB Party, would significantly decrease support for government services. In his former role as governor of Minas Gerais, Neves introduced a program called "management shock," a set of sweeping reforms designed to bring the state budget under control by reducing government expenditure and promoting private investment. When asked by GloboNews about his fiscal strategy at a June 14 press conference, Neves replied, “An adjustment would be made, but not overnight. We would have a much more austere policy than what’s currently taking place.” Equity markets have rallied in response to Rousseff’s dip in popularity because they know that her policies greatly benefit the poor, while Neves’s will benefit elites who have the capital to be involved in private investments.  

It seems to me that a serious sorting-out is now in order. Rousseff must make good on commitments such as her pledge to complete the infrastructure projects that began during World Cup preparations. These projects are desperately needed and will result in long-term benefits for communities throughout Brazil. She must continue her policy of transparency and remind the electorate that she has put in place the most ardent anti-corruption policy in Brazil's history. And she must tell her story. Rousseff, like Angela Merkel, is a pragmatist. She keeps her head down and works hard to get the job done. She is not a showman like a Lula or a Bill Clinton. But now is not the time for modesty or silence. She should not hesitate to remind voters of her past as a guerrilla, imprisoned and tortured by a military dictatorship, and of her strong track record of fighting for economic justice. With the World Cup behind her, now is the time for Rousseff to step out of the presidential palace and take to the streets, to visit as many parts of Brazil as she can, reconnecting with and reenergizing the millions whose lives have improved during her presidency.  

Heather Arnet is the writer/director of Madame Presidenta: Why Not US? She is CEO of the Women & Girls Foundation, and Board Chair of the Ms. Foundation for Women. For more info visit: www.madamepresidenta.com