Newly re-elected Brazil leader faces house divided

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil's re-elected leader Dilma Rousseff on Monday faced a house divided after a bitterly fought election that ended with the narrowest presidential win since the nation's return to democracy three decades ago.

In a victory speech, Rousseff said her first task will be to seek reconciliation and to build bridges to those who didn't vote for her.

"This president is willing to dialogue and that's the first promise of my second term, to have a dialogue," she said before cheering supporters in Brasilia.

It's not clear how far the famously stubborn Rousseff will reach out to a highly fragmented opposition and a Congress that now has 28 parties, or how much they want to work with her, principally on long-delayed structural changes and shorter-term measures to boost a stagnant economy, or on political reforms that many Brazilians demand.

"We've never seen an election that's been this divisive," said Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "The things said during the campaign, by both sides, will make it very difficult for the nation to come together quickly."

Rousseff has steep challenges on both the economic and political fronts.

Brazil's economy fell into technical recession in August. It faces the internal pressure of lessening consumer demand and the external dilemma of China's growth slowing faster than expected. Brazil's economic expansion in the past decade was built on the spending of a newly minted middle class and the voracious Chinese appetite for commodities like iron ore and soy.

Massive offshore oil finds in recent years were called Brazil's lottery ticket and its "passport" to developed-nation status by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But state-run oil company Petrobras so far hasn't made good on its potential to tap the deep-water riches. Many blame Rousseff's interventions in the oil company, such as forcing it to keep gasoline cheap to battle inflation, as hamstringing its ability to invest and grow.

Now, Petrobras is at the center of a massive kickback scandal. A convicted money launderer who is cooperating with federal investigators in exchange for a lighter sentence said, while offering no proof, that the Workers' Party benefited from the scheme and that Rousseff had direct knowledge of it. She has strongly denied that.

The tough economic scenario, the political fallout from the scandal, the divided election and the ever-present middle class demands for greatly improved public services in return for the heavy tax burden mean that Rousseff's road ahead will be bumpy.

"The government is going to have less capacity to deliver what the people are asking for in terms of better public services," Sotero said. "The political fighting and fiscal problems paint the picture of a government that will have less to spend."

But Rafael de Paula Araujo, a political scientist at Sao Paulo's Pontifical Catholic University, said that Brazil's been "divided along ideological and class lines for years," and that it's not a new battle for the Workers' Party.

"It's a division that became exacerbated after the first round vote, when the election became polarized between two candidates."

Araujo argued that while there is a clear divisiveness following the election, the rift will likely quickly heal when voters think about the 12 years the Workers' Party has been in power, a time during which "the rich got richer, the poor became less poor and social programs benefited millions who entered the middle class."

Because Brazil as a whole is unquestionably better off than it was a decade ago, the political fighting here isn't remotely as virulent as in some neighboring countries like Venezuela or Argentina. With the opposition fragmented, Rousseff can use coalition building around specific projects to avoid the stalemates seen in the U.S., where the two-party system creates an us-versus-them political scenario.

Maria Socorro, a 23-year-old nanny in Rio, said she voted for Rousseff, but would hold her accountable for making good on promises to protect the poor and turn Brazil's economy around.

"They've got to show that they'll push the country forward," she said. "Success is the best way to heal the divide this election created."

Rousseff told supporters that she hopes the passions released by the election "have prepared the way for the building of bridges, that the heat released in this dispute can and must be transformed into constructive energy for a new moment in Brazil."

"I understand they mobilized ideas and emotions at times contradictory," she said. "But they're motivated by a common sentiment: the search for a better future for the country."


Associated Press writer Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report


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