Female voters in Brazil could ensure an easy victory this October for the ruling Workers Party candidate, Dilma Rousseff. But recent polls seem to indicate that it is women themselves who are most reluctant to elect the country's first female president.
Jacira Melo, executive director of the Patricia Galvão Institute, a Brazilian women's rights organisation, told IPS that women voters "are waiting until they have more information" about the candidate and the policies she plans to pursue before they decide who to vote for.
Women tend to weigh their votes much more carefully and often do not come to a final decision until it is time to cast their ballots and they have learned everything they can about the candidates and their platforms, Melo stressed, downplaying the "premature" conclusions reached by some observers that "women don't vote for women" or that they are more conservative than men.
These claims are based on the results of the latest polls, which show that Rousseff -- a former minister of mines and energy and former cabinet chief who enjoys strong backing from President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -- has garnered growing support from decided voters, but lags behind her chief male opponent when it comes to women voters.
In a poll released on Jul. 24 by the Datafolha Institute, Rousseff, 62, and her main rival, José Serra, 68, are tied overall. But Serra has the support of 38 percent of the women surveyed, while only 30 percent said they plan to vote for Rousseff.
Rousseff is the candidate for the governing coalition led by the leftist Workers Party, in power since 2002, while Serra represents the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which ruled Brazil for the eight previous years.
Rousseff, known popularly as "Lula's candidate", had the support of only 23 percent of voters in December, but has climbed 13 percentage points in the polls since then. Nevertheless, among women voters her support has only increased by seven points, despite heavy campaign publicity and the backing of the president.
André Pereira, an analyst at the consulting firm CAC, said such results are a "mystery," since the social programmes promoted by Lula during his eight years in power are the main reason behind his extraordinary popularity, and most of those programmes have primarily benefited women, such as financial assistance for low-income families and the extension of maternity leave to six months.
But the support of the female electorate was also a challenge for Lula himself in 2002 and 2006, when he garnered a minority of women's votes in the first round of voting. And his presidential approval rating, currently around 80 percent, is 10 percentage points lower than that among women.
The first round of voting takes place on Oct. 3, to be followed by a run-off vote between the top two presidential contenders on Oct. 31, if none of the candidates obtains 50 percent support in the first round.
Women are "much more rigorous" when it comes to casting their ballots, said Melo, pointing out that while Lula's political discourse is very "advanced", in reality a full 95 percent of ministers in his cabinet are men, and the ministries led by women tend to be those with "less power and smaller budgets."
"For a lot of women, Lula probably reminds them of their husbands and partners," who undervalue them and do not pull their weight in the home, Melo added. As a result, Lula's humble origins and his image as a "man of the people," the cornerstones of his charisma and popularity, do not score the same points with women as they do with men.
During his time in power, Lula's image has undergone a radical makeover, complete with designer suits and ties. But in many women's minds, the image of the "old" Lula, "the bearded union leader eating watermelon in the market," lives on -- and so do old allegations, such as the claim that he tried to force a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair to abort the daughter he fathered with her, Pereira stressed.
Women voters tend to be reluctant to support Workers Party candidates in general, he noted, suggesting that the reason might lie with the image and the origins of the party, which emerged from the trade union movement that set forth radical proposals amidst turbulent protests in the 1980s and 1990s.
Despite these obstacles, the Datafolha survey showed that 41 percent of respondents, both women and men, believe that Rousseff will win the election, compared to 30 percent who predict a victory for Serra, a former minister of health (1998-2002) and governor of the state of Sao Paulo (2006-2010).
Another poll, released Jul. 31 by the Brazilian Public Opinion and Statistics Institute (Ibope), put Rousseff in the lead with 39 percent of voter support, against 34 percent for Serra. In a poll by the same agency published a month ago, the two candidates were neck and neck.
Rousseff is commonly perceived as the favourite, but in order to avoid a surprise upset, she needs to work hard to woo women voters, who outnumber men, Pereira said.
In doing so, she faces two major hurdles, Pereira noted: a lack of charisma, and the "dispersion of votes" that could result from the competition of another woman candidate, Marina Silva of the Green Party, a former minister of the environment in the Lula cabinet. Silva is currently running third in the polls, with the support of 10 percent of voters according to Datafolha and seven percent according to Ibope.
Two female candidates in the same presidential race, one of them favoured to win and the other forcing the environment onto the electoral agenda, is an "unprecedented" situation in Brazil that contrasts sharply with the low degree of female representation in political power, and means that women voters are facing a completely new reality, Melo said.
The fact that surveys show that almost one half of female voters have not yet chosen a candidate should not be interpreted as indecision or rejection of the two female candidates, she argued, adding that "These are votes under construction."
Melo also thinks it is only natural that, according to Datafolha, 32 percent of respondents feel they know Serra "very well" as opposed to only 14 percent when it comes to Rousseff. Serra was formerly the head of a high-profile ministry, and also ran against Lula in 2002, which gained him extremely high national exposure.
Both analysts believe that the candidates' use of the free political advertising space on radio and television, beginning Aug. 17, will be decisive. Thanks to the dozens of parties in the coalition backing her, Rousseff will have more air time to voice her ideas and reach out to voters -- particularly women voters.