In power, but without power to change?

By Alice Stevens

At the moment, it appears likely that Dilma Rousseff, Lula De Silva’s chosen successor, will succeed in the run-offs of Brazil’s presidential election at the end of October and become Brazil’s first female president. Rousseff’s election will continue a trend of increasing female leadership in the countries of South America. She will join the ranks of Michelle Bachelet, who became Chile’s first female president in 2006, and Christina Fernández de Kirchner, who is the current president of Argentina.

However, while the political leadership of these women is a success in itself, female leadership does not guarantee that issues involving women’s rights will be addressed. Luiza Erundina de Sousa, former mayor of São Paulo, said that having a woman as president “is not enough to drive changes towards gender balance, however capable she may be. She needs support from men and from civil society organisations.” 

These female leaders have done little to disrupt the status quo. While quota laws have been introduced in South America over the last twenty years, women are still poorly represented in Latin American politics. Though female participation in Argentina’s parliament has risen under non-voluntary quotas, in Chile’s parliament women comprise only 14 percent in the lower chamber and 13 percent in the senate. Participation in Brazil’s parliament is even lower. Patricia Rangel, of the Feminist Centre for Studies and Advisory Services in Brazil, insists that it is no good just electing women, what is needed is the election of women with an awareness of gender inequity.

As far as she has indicated, Dilma Roussef will do little to deviate from her predecessor’s politics. In the last two years, Lula enjoyed an 80 percent approval rating.

A great number of Brazilians asserted that they would vote for whomever Lula thought best. In fact, Lula’s endorsement of Rousseff is probably the single most important factor to her success in the polls. Rousseff has never held elected office and has given little indication of her policy initiatives, other than continuing Lula’s. It’s hard to tell whether Rousseff’s gender is a help or a hindrance given Lula’s extensive involvement in her campaign.

However, the success of the third party candidate, Marina Silva of the Green party, took analysts by surprise when she received almost a fifth of the vote in the election of October 3. Silva’s popularity, more so than Rousseff’s, suggests that Brazilians are embracing the notion of a female leader and that gender may be a motivating factor in the success of female candidates in this election.

In a recent survey, the Pew Research Centre found that 70 percent of Brazilians think it would be a good idea to have a female president, compared with 33 percent of U.S. citizens who answered this question in 2007. While the trend of female leadership may not indicate a radical transformation of Latin American gender issues, it is a sign of progression towards gender equality.