RIO DE JANEIRO — The election of Dilma Rousseff on Sunday had all the trappings of a globally historic event. Daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant father, tortured under the military dictatorship, Rousseff assiduously climbed the administrative ranks into the outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's White House and ran for office to become the first female president in this rapidly modernizing country.
But somehow, in Brazil's capital of parties, many here think there isn't much to celebrate.
Fervently promoted by the wildly popular Lula, the former presidential chief of staff thumped her opponent, former São Paulo Governor José Serra, winning by a 12-point margin. But the response has been tepid. On the Rio festivity scale, it was somewhere between a rainy day and a league soccer game. At the far end of Rio's Leme beach, at the scheduled Workers Party celebration, a few hundred supporters waved flags to loud samba music and campaign jingles as the results came in on a boardroom-sized projector screen, but scattered joggers and picnickers took up the rest of the beach's stretch. In the main downtown plaza near the city's municipal theater, only about 10 people stood up to cheer when the news came on at an open-air bar, while a stream of theatergoers behind them meandered toward the metro. And nationwide, a record number for a presidential runoff abstained from voting during the long holiday weekend -- 21.5 percent. (Voting is mandatory in Brazil.)
By comparison, when Michelle Bachelet -- also a former government minister who had not held elected office before and who was tortured under a military dictator -- was elected Chile's first female president in 2006, Chileans thronged Santiago in celebration. They waved the country's flag, honked car horns, and sang her name in the streets: "¡Olé olé olé olé! ¡Michelle, Michelle!"
Voters here seem significantly less engaged, largely because Rousseff campaigned on a plank of "more of the same" -- not the most exciting slogan. "To continue is not to repeat; it is to continue advancing," said Rousseff, in a campaign where voters both asked for more of the same but also questioned whether Lula would simply pull the strings behind the stage. Lula was noticeably absent at Rousseff's acceptance speech, where she said, "The task of succeeding him is difficult."
"This was really the first election that I remember in my life where first it is a conservative election," says Alexandre Barros, managing director of the Brasilia political consultancy Early Warning Consulting. "The voter is saying… 'I am going to vote for this guy, this woman, because I want everything to stay as it is.'"
After casting his vote Sunday, university professor Leonardo Mesentier, in a bright red Workers Party shirt, explained, "Really, I'm not voting Dilma; I'm voting for a political base." He had voted for Lula five times previously -- Lula ran three times unsuccessfully before his two wins -- and said he was neither anxious nor excited about the runoff vote because it looked like an easy victory.
Even less enthusiastic at the same polling site was Edilza, who had also just cast her vote for Rousseff. "I thought she was the least worst" option, she said, adding, "I only vote for Dilma because I live in a community" -- a common way of referring to one of Brazil's favelas (slums). She said that she had seen improvements in living conditions over the past few years and hoped they would continue under the same party.
Rosangela Bittar, editor in chief of the Valor Economico journal and a political columnist, also attributes the lack of voter enthusiasm to the "brute" character of this campaign. Since Rousseff missed an outright victory in the first round of voting Oct. 3, the campaigns devolved into trading jabs on abortion and religion. The opposition latched onto a 2007 interview in which Rousseff expressed sympathy for legalizing abortion, anathema in this devoutly Catholic country. She then loudly emphasized that she's personally against abortion and that the current law, which only allows it in the case of risk to the mother or rape, should be maintained. The opposition loudly called her on the flip-flop. "I don't believe that any woman is in favor [of abortion]," she said in a final campaign interview published in Epoca magazine.
Then there were the accusations of dirty politics when Serra was struck in the head with a small object while campaigning in Rio de Janeiro. Serra blamed the projectile on Rousseff's supporters and went directly to the hospital; Lula said it was just a ball of paper and that the whole thing was a made-up bid for sympathy, comparing Serra to the infamous Chilean goalie Roberto Rojas who pretended to be hit by a flare on the field when his team was losing to Brazil in 1989.