When the confetti was still falling after her victory at the polls on October 31, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president-elect, said, "I want to state my first commitment after the elections: to honor Brazil’s women so that today’s unprecedented result becomes a normal event and may be repeated and enlarged in companies, civil institutions and representative entities of our entire society."
In a country where women have typically played a limited role in politics, the election of a woman to Brazil’s highest office signals a major break from the past. But Rousseff’s term will likely be marked by continuity with her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, a member of the Workers’ Party (PT), is leaving office with 87 percent support in the polls. An economist, PT bureaucrat, chief of staff under Lula and former guerrilla in the anti-dictatorship movements of the 1960s and ’70s, Rousseff was handpicked by Lula to follow his lead as president. When she is sworn in on January 1, she will inherit Lula’s popular legacy and will be further empowered by the fact that her party and allied parties won a majority of seats in the Senate and Congress. Not even Lula counted on this much support.
Considering the major economic and social gains Brazilians have enjoyed since Lula took office in 2003, the popularity of the PT candidate in the recent election was not a surprise. During Lula’s two terms as president, 20 million Brazilians rose out of poverty, and the minimum wage was raised by more than half. These advances were enabled by the country’s economic growth, spurred on in part by major exports to China; but they were also a result of Lula’s political will to promote social programs. In her victory speech, Rousseff pledged to extend these popular programs—at one point she vowed to eradicate poverty entirely. "We must not rest while there are Brazilians going hungry," she said.
Among the initiatives likely to expand is the Zero Hunger program, developed by Lula, which provides direct vitamin and food subsidies alongside projects to generate employment through infrastructure projects in electricity and irrigation. The Family Grant program is another success story: the program, which gives stipends to poor families that earn less than 120 Brazilian reais per month (about $71 US) has touched the lives of some 12.4 million families. In order to receive funding, families are required to send their children to school, where they have to attend at least 85 percent of classes, go through healthcare exams and receive vaccinations. More recently, Rousseff helped develop the My House, My Life program, which provides subsidies for home ownership.
Rousseff’s early cabinet appointments suggest that continuity will be the name of the game on issues of health and social development. She tapped Lula aide Tereza Campello to manage the Family Grant program as minister of social development, and Alexandre Padilha, a Lula adviser, will take over as health minister. The size and impact of these initiatives will likely increase in the coming years with help from new state oil revenues. Rousseff was the chairwoman of the state-run oil company, Petrobras, and she helped draft legislation that will give the state a key role in the exploration and extraction of oil reserves recently discovered off the coast of the country. Some of the funds generated for the government from this resource will be directed specifically to healthcare and education programs.