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Brazil's Rousseff promises reform after election win

Miguel Schincariol, AFP | Supporters of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff celebrate her re-election in the city of Sao Paulo, October 2014.

Brazilian voters handed Dilma Rousseff another mandate as the country’s president on Sunday. Her victory could hail new political and social reforms in Latin America’s biggest country.

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FRANCE 24 correspondent in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Supporters of Rousseff’s left-wing Workers Party (PT) celebrated en masse under a light rain on Sunday evening on Avenida Paulista, the city of Sao Paulo’s main thoroughfare. The drizzle mixed with songs of joy, tears, as well as sighs of relief, following an election that remained unpredictable until the bitter end.

“My first words are a call for peace and unity. I am open to dialogue and that will be the first priority in my second mandate,” Rousseff, who claimed 51.46% of ballots cast on Sunday, said during a victory speech in Brasilia.

She delivered her address alongside her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Together, they have already presided over 12 years of PT rule that has seen massive investments in welfare, education and health programs.

Rousseff pledged Sunday to launch far-reaching “political reform” and “fight corruption,” echoing issues that dominated the often acrimonious presidential campaign.

“The tightest [election] results can sometimes produce much bigger changes than victories with large margins,” Rousseff added in a nod to her conservative rival Aecio Neves.

A few surprises

Only around 3.5 million ballots separated Rousseff and Neves in a country where more than 142 million people are eligible to vote and participating in elections is mandatory by law.

Neves, the candidate for the more business-friendly Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), conceded defeat in front of supporters gathered in the city of Belo Horizonte. The dark horse candidate who surprised most political forecasters by getting to the second round, Neves called on Rousseff to give Brazilians an “honest project” for governing the country.

As expected, Rousseff dominated the election in large swaths of the country’s poorer north and northeast, and handily won in Rio de Janeiro.

Unexpectedly, she also won in Minas Gerais, Aecio’s home state, and the second most populous in Brazil.

Aecio made important electoral gains for his PSDB party in the southern, more prosperous regions of the country, taking up to 65 percent of votes in Sao Paulo, the country’s financial hub.

The final stretch of the very close race was also marked by controversy, sparked by one of the country’s most popular magazines.

Brazil’s election authorities, the Supreme Electoral Court, upheld a motion to ban an alleged tell-all report in the weekly Veja.

The report, slated to hit newsstands just 48 hours before polls opened, accused Rousseff and Lula da Silva of complicity in an ongoing corruption scandal engulfing state-run oil firm Petrobras. Rousseff denied Veja’s allegations, saying the report on the eve of the ballot amounted to “electoral terrorism.”

Rousseff's supporters gathered at the headquarters of the Worker’s Party in Sao Paulo were still expressing their outrage with Veja on Sunday, even after results showed their candidate had won. Explicit phrases targeting Veja were part of the victory chants.

What kind of second term?

Rancorous disputes between political camps, including the Veja scandal, were widespread during the race, with candidates and their spokesmen barely taking a break from attacks.

Harnessing popular discontent that sparked massive street protests across Brazil in June 2013, Rousseff’s opponents constantly levelled abuse at her for allowing the country to slip into recession earlier this year, and desperately tried to link the incumbent and members of her administration to the Petrobras scandal.

Rousseff saw her approval rating drop from 70 percent in 2011 to 32 percent one month ahead of the first round of the elections. But the former guerrilla who became Brazil’s first woman president held onto her job thanks to support from the roughly 40 million people her party has helped climb out of extreme poverty in the past decade.

Joao Whitaker, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo, said the victory should allow Rousseff and the PT to consolidate the social reforms launched after the party came to power in 2003.

He said Rousseff would likely move quickly to criminalise homophobia, challenge tax breaks for the press, and launch a series of referendums on social issues.

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