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Latin America: Push for greater female representation and legal reform ahead of Brazilian election

In any election year, Brazilians say Independence Day – Sete de Setembro – is when campaigning really begins. But nobody could have predicted such an explosive start to the long weekend. Festivities took a dark turn on 6 September when populist candidate Jair Bolsanaro was stabbed during a rally.

And this is by no means an isolated incident in a country where violence is widespread and security continues to top the agenda. 2017 saw more murders than ever before – 63,880 were recorded by the Brazilian Public Security Forum. In March, left-wing councillor Marielle Franco was shot dead in her car. The fallout from the Car Wash corruption scandal – Lava Jato – had already led to the impeachment of a former president (Dilma Rousseff) and the imprisonment of another (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), making this one of the most fraught elections in Brazil’s history.

Bolsanaro established a lead in the polls, appealing to concerns about crime and corruption. But, he’s alienated many with calls to loosen gun laws and inflammatory rhetoric about women, gay rights and race.

A run-off looks likely between Bolsanaro and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad, who replaced Lula on the ballot paper after the former president was barred from running due to a corruption conviction. Which candidate absorbs Lula’s votes is a key factor in this election.

Lula gained huge popularity with women for his efforts to reduce inequality and expand the welfare programme, Bolsa Familia, which lifted millions out of poverty and gave many women financial autonomy for the first time. While the campaign has been dominated by vows to tackle crime, security, corruption, unemployment and to enact tax reform, pledges on social issues, such as improving welfare and reducing inequality, resonate with the electorate, particularly women.

Whether a female candidate can succeed is another matter. A 2009 law stipulates that at least 30 per cent of candidates must be women. In the event, just 30.6 per cent of those registered to run for office this year are women. Marina Silva, born into a mixed-race family in the Amazon and Lula’s former environment minister, is the most prominent. An estimated 50 per cent of the female electorate remain undecided.

Social media has galvanised considerable support for the Vote Nela (Vote for Her) campaign to sway undecided voters towards female candidates. 147.3 million people are eligible to vote in Brazil – where voting is mandatory – and 52% are women. A recent poll revealed 49% of women surveyed would not vote for Bolsonaro in the first round, which takes place on 7 October. ‘One of the interesting things I’ve noticed over the last couple of months is that pretty much all the candidates have tried to reach women voters,’ says Anna Prusa, an associate at the Brazil Institute. ‘This is something we haven’t seen in past election cycles’

Reproductive rights are a major issue in a country where abortion remains illegal. Hundreds of thousands of abortions occur in Brazil every year and there are increasing reports of women dying after botched terminations, making it one of the country’s most serious public health issues. Paula Vieira de Oliveira is Gender and Diversity Compliance Officer of the IBA Latin American Regional Forum. She says law reform could help resolve the issue. The Supreme Court is considering relaxing its rules on abortion in a move that echoes steps elsewhere in Latin America to expand reproductive rights. ‘The female electorate has been organising itself to protest against certain agendas and candidates’ proposals and has virtually mobilised more than one million women on social media,’ says Vieira.

The role of the judiciary and the use of social media have been influential. ‘Recent developments have had a lot of power in shaping the way Brazilians are looking at this,’ says Prusa, noting that hard-line conservatives like Silva have softened their stance on abortion. ‘She is still anti-abortion, but she has said that it should not be a criminal offence and that you shouldn’t punish women that make these choices.’

Winds of change

Brazil’s fragmented electoral system presents additional challenges. In the wake of Car Wash, in 2015 Brazil enacted a law to prohibit companies from financing political campaigns. Funded by the public purse, each candidate is allocated airtime for campaigning according to the percentage of seats their party holds in Congress: the larger the coalition behind the candidate, the greater the airtime. Ricardo Veirano, a member of the IBA Latin American Regional Forum Advisory Board, believes this system is deeply flawed. ‘One candidate can have thirty seconds every three days, but another, with more support in Congress, might get something like 18 minutes every day,’ he says.

‘Political parties are private institutions,’ says Veirano. ‘They should be supported purely by private funds, by the individuals that believe in the ideas and programme of the party. It is indeed very telling of the system that we currently have in place that there is a Partisan Fund funded by taxpayers’ money to finance political campaigns. The rules surrounding the Fund are very similar to the television rules; they are made to concentrate power and to make it very difficult for people who are already there and entrenched in Congress and other public positions not to be elected. They have every wind blowing in their favour.’

There are, though, winds of change. As of May 2018, political campaigns must spend at least 30 per cent of their resources on female candidates. Flávia da Costa Viana is vice-director of international affairs at the Brazilian Association of Judges. She’s been spearheading an initiative to promote gender parity in the country’s judiciary. ‘The parties have female candidates because they have to obey the law, but often they don’t invest in their campaigns,’ she says. ‘We still have less than 10% of women in Congress and we’re not as represented as we should be. We had President Dilma, but she was elected mainly because she had support from Lula and not because she was a woman that was considered competent. I hope this ruling helps, but for female politicians in Brazil – as it is for us in the judiciary – there’s still a long way to go.’