Women candidates to the fore at Brazil ballot

More women are contesting local elections than before amid steps for bringing about gender equality in political life.

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – In many ways it’s a typical campaign rally with posters, music, and a candidate hollering promises into a microphone. But at this particularly boisterous Saturday afternoon event in a park in a working class neighbourhood here, the candidate – Manuela d’Avila – is anything but a cut from mould of a typical Brazilian politician.

D’Avila is 31, and she’s running for mayor of this important city of 1.5 million people, which is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state.

Despite her young age, d’Avila – from Brazil’s communist party – is a seasoned political pro, currently serving her second term as a federal deputy in congress, where she was first elected when she was 25.

She doesn’t come from a family that created a political dynasty. Neither of her parents are politicians; Mom is a judge and her father a professor.

D’Avila arrived to congress with high hopes and aspirations, but was soon met by the reality of being a young, attractive woman with power walking the halls of the man’s world of the Brazilian congress.

“In Brasilia everyone was always concerned about my looks,” d’Avila said. “It was always a media story asking if I was pretty that day, or not, and they weren’t asking if I was prepared for the job. And that is different from young men in politics who are always called ‘rising stars’ with promising political futures.”

She’s now running for mayor of her native Porto Alegre in hopes of broadening her political career beyond congress.

But d’Avila’s trajectory is rare for women in Brazil.

Unequal representation

This year marks the 80th anniversary since women earned the right to vote in Brazil, but despite the fact current president Dilma Rousseff broke barriers by becoming the first female president, women still are lagging behind men in other levels of elected office.

Currently women make up about 52 per cent of the voting electorate in Brazil, but only about 12 per cent of all elected officials.

“The quotas guarantee the entry of women into politics, election after election there will be more political capital for women, but will be a process.” 

– Suzana Cavenaghi (Political Analyst)

On Sunday Brazil is holding nationwide municipal elections to elect mayors and council positions in 5,568 municipalities. According to public data collected by David Fleischer, a Brasilia-based political scientist, of the 5,323 mayoral candidates in the country, 12 per cent are women. Of the 435,800 local council candidates running nationwide only 32 per cent are female, which represents a 10 per cent increase from 2008 elections, but still lags behind what it should be, several analysts here say.

Jose Diniz Alves, a demographics and politics researcher, pointed to the first round of voting in the 2010 presidential election as proof that Brazilians are not hesitant to vote for women when they are on the ballot. In that race the two women on the ballot – Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva – received roughly 68 million of the 101 million votes cast.

Alves argued that the problem is an entrenched political party system that marginalises women candidates at the local level, so that they have a hard time competing effectively.

“The political parties do not invest in women because the party elite are run by men who always appoint men to important positions,” he said. “So when women do run for office, they often don’t have the same experience as their male counterparts who have been groomed.”

Rousseff was seen as an exception to the rule because she was specifically groomed for the job and hand picked by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s most popular president who left office in 2010 with over 70 per cent  approval rating.

Quota system

Steps are being taken to get more women into political life. For the first time a quota system has been implemented that now requires 30 per cent of candidates for city council positions to be women, a move hailed as an important first step but that will take time to bear fruit.

“The quotas guarantee the entry of women into politics,” said Suzana Cavenaghi, a political analyst. “Election after election there will be more political capital for women, but will be a process.”

 Manuela d’Avila says there will be no true democracy without equal representation for women [Gabriel Elizondo/Al Jazeera]

Starting next year the ruling Workers Party has said they will mandate that 50 per cent of all local party council leadership positions be filled by women as a way to groom future candidates at the grassroots level.

As for d’Avila, she’s in a tough mayoral race with six other men, including Jose Fortunati, the popular incumbent.

In July she was neck-and-neck in the polls, but she’s slipped to second place with the latest polling showing Fortunati with 61 per cent  of the vote compared to 23 per cent for d’Avila

(If no candidate get’s 50 per cent it goes to a runoff between the top two vote getters)

If d’Avila losses the mayors race, she’ll go back to her congress, but she is hoping her message at least is getting out to the public.

“If there is no equal representation of women, I don’t think there is a democracy,” she said.

At d’Avila’s recent afternoon rally the audience was mostly women – some old enough to be her grandmother, others too young to vote – that clearly idolise the young political maverick.

After her speech she was mobbed by well-wishers wanting to hug and take pictures with her. Her security detail wedged an opening.

She stopped to hold some babies and take pictures several times.

An elderly woman then yelled: “Do it for the youth, do it for the women!”

That caught the candidates’ attention. D’Avila briefly stopped, looked over at the woman, and gave a thumbs up and a wink before ducking into the back seat of the car and being whisked away to the next event.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

– With reporting from Maria Elena Romero 

Source: Al Jazeera