Dirty Campaigning, Brazilian Style

By Gillian Kane

November 1, 2010 – 3:12pm

“Murderer,” “anti-Christ,” “candidate of death.”  No, this isn’t Sharron Angle talking about Harry Reid in advance of tomorrow’s election.  This was the combative rhetoric framing the lead up to Sunday’s run-off election in Brazil.  The 2010 presidential elections marked the first time abortion became a highly debated campaign issue and it followed a fairly American script, replete with allegations against front runner, Dilma Rousseff, that she was a lesbian, a child-killer, a socialist.  The tactic didn’t pay off: Rousseff won a resounding victory last night with 56 percent of the vote to become Brazil’s first female president. 

It is remarkable that the Catholic Church and its right wing allies succeeded to the extent they did in making abortion a wedge issue because both presidential candidates, Rousseff and her opponent, José Serra, the former governor of Sao Paulo state, are hardly pro-choice—at at least in the way we Americans define pro-choice. Neither advocates for legalizing abortion, neither campaigned on a pro-choice platform, and neither has aligned with the activist Brazilian pro-choice movement.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil, though permissible for two exceptions; rape and risk to life of the pregnant woman.  The Brazilian feminist movement, active now for almost 30 years, has made significant progress in the face of unrelenting opposition to legal abortion reform.  Gains, however, are measured not in legislative change—there are few political champions within the National Congress—but rather in creating broad awareness about unsafe abortion as a public health issue, ensuring that legal abortions are available, developing a grassroots movement  to support legalizing abortion and preventing any regression on existing legislation.

The extraordinary visibility of abortion in this campaign season attests, in part, to the work of the anti-choice opposition.  But it also indicates the success of the women’s movement in making the right to control one’s reproductive decisions a political consideration.  Getting to this point has taken decades.  Unfortunately, the discussion about abortion as a public health concern and a woman’s right has been corrupted by an increasingly aggressive anti-choice movement that is using abortion to smear a candidate’s morality, integrity, and in Rousseff’s case, her femininity.

Rousseff is President Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor to represent the Workers Party. As such she will likely continue his progressive social and economic policies, many of which are objectionable to the Church and conservatives.  Like her mentor, she’s not what you’d call a radical on the issue of abortion.  But she has gone further than Lula, saying abortion is a public health concern that should be examined and decriminalized. These small statements are considered significant progress within the women’s movement.

Apparently the anti-choice movement seems to feel the same.  They publicized Rousseff’s mild remarks as examples of her extremist views. Their aggressive anti-abortion, anti-Rousseff campaign, mostly launched on the internet and through local parishes, forced her to retract these statements. In a desperate bid to court Catholics and evangelicals—a constituency both candidates were frantically vying for—she went so far as to sign a pledge stating that she is personally against abortion and promising not to change existing abortion laws if elected.

Serra is equally tepid on the issue of abortion though to his credit in 1988, when he was Minister of Health, it passed guidelines introducing the contraceptive pill to Brazil and legalizing abortion for the only two existing exceptions. Like Rousseff he has disavowed his past but because he has the full support of the Catholic Church, he has done a much better job of presenting himself as the “pro-life” candidate.

While abortion is absolutely a controversial issue, this particular controversy—that Rousseff is a rabid abortion supporter—is a red herring.  The myth of her wholesale support for abortion up to the ninth month has been entirely fabricated by the hierarchy of the Brazilian Catholic Church, with overt support from the Vatican.

Just last week Pope Benedict XVI issued a public statement urging Brazil’s bishops to highlight the Church’s opposition to abortion and to encourage their congregations to vote for the candidate that respects life.  As a secular country founded on the principle of separation of church and state, the role of the Catholic Church in this election cycle, and the abuse of its role in particular, merits another article entirely.

Given the similarity between the two candidates why abortion and why now? The answer is clear: The social stigma around abortion is such that the Catholic Church and its allies can gain political traction by merely leveling the accusation that a person is pro-choice. This negative branding has a long-lasting effect, even if the categorization is all wrong, as in the case of Rousseff.  Abortion is an easy way to destabilize candidates and distract voters from other pressing national matters. In a contested election with the potential to change parties, and where a woman as president is a strong likelihood, the Church is willing to use all the weapons in its arsenal to ensure a victory.

What calls the whole “debate” on abortion into question is that there really is no debate. Legalizing abortion in Brazil anytime soon is not a real possibility, not under Lula or Rousseff.

So what lessons can we draw from this campaign?  The Church and its allies did shift the terms of the electoral debate and candidates were forced to placate religious voters by refashioning their position on abortion.  However, after last night’s historic win we have clear evidence that this strategy is weakening. Abortion can unbalance a candidate but it turns out voters in Brazil are not one-issue voters like Americans.  Let’s hope that US voters tomorrow will do as Brazilians did last night and ignore the vitriol of the campaign season and elect candidates who represent their best interests—and not those of the Catholic and evangelical churches.