Last night, President Dilma Rousseff was re-elected to Brazil’s presidency in one of the most contested elections in the country’s history.
According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Rousseff won with 51.57% of the votes. Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Social Democratic Party—PSDB) challenger Aécio Neves lost by less than 3-points with 48.43%.
This was the narrowest margin ever registered during a presidential election since the fall of the country’s dictatorship in 1985. Rousseff swept the north and northeast states, home to some of the country’s poorest residents. The opposition won in the south and in Sao Paulo, where more than 20% of the voting population lives.
One of the decisive states in the election was Minas Gerais, where both candidates were born and where Neves served two-terms as governor. Despite leaving that office with a 92% approval rating in 2010, he lost to Rousseff by nearly five points.
It was also one of the most aggressive and divisive campaigns Brazilians ever witnessed.
In her acceptance speech, President Rousseff said establishing a “dialogue” will be her top priority.
“I’m very hopeful this mobilizing energy will help create fertile ground to build bridges,” Rousseff, said as she spoke on stage in Brasilia with dozens of supporters including her predecessor and mentor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “I believe it will be possible to build a common ground.”
This came after the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) incumbent and Neves attacked each other during campaign events and televised debates.
During their final debate, the mud was slung directly at Rousseff and her alleged involvement in a massive corruption scandal involving the PT party and the state-run oil giant Petrobras.
Neves suggested Rousseff and Lula knew of the kickback scheme, citing an article from the weekly magazine Veja quoted testimony from an arrested black market dollar dealer. The president denied the allegations and accused the publication of acting as a mouthpiece for the opposition.
Rousseff also attacked her challenger, whom she accused of elitism, nepotism and even brought up an incident where he was stopped by police under suspicion of drunk driving.
The smear tactics were reflected in the polls. At least 25% of voters abstained or submitted null or blank ballots during Sunday’s election, which is high given the country operates under a compulsory voting system.
“I am only here because I have to be,” Angela Rosa, a voter from Rio de Janeiro’s Maré neighborhood said. “Neither one of them is going to do anything to change the problems our country is facing.”
Brazilians like Rosa cited public health care, security and education as their main concerns.
Many also worry about the state of the economy. The country officially entered a recession in August and the Brazilian real, the country’s local currency, has devalued to its lowest exchange rate in nearly 10 years.
“I will promote with urgency localized actions, especially in the economy, so that we could return to our rhythm of growth and continue with our high employment and securing the appreciation of salaries,” Rousseff said.
Rousseff, 66, was a guerrilla Marxist who was tortured during Brazil’s dictatorship. She joined the PT in 2000 and served as Lula’s energy minister in 2003 and chief of staff in 2005.
During its twelve years in power, the PT is credited with helping 50 million people out of extreme poverty. It increased the minimum wage by nearly 30% and implemented the social welfare program bolsa familia, which provides small monthly stipend to poor Brazilians.
“I want to be a better president than I have been up until now,” Rousseff said, as she wrapped up her victory speech. “The clash of ideals could make room for a consensus on our necessary road for change.”
A version of this blog post was also published by "America's Quarterly" on October 27th, 2014.