O menos mal

"Presidenta" Dilma, by Alexandre Vieira

“Presidenta” Dilma, by Alexandre Vieira

O menos mal means “the least bad.” It was a phrase I have heard a lot in the lead up to yesterday’s elections, as Brazilians told me they were voting not for their ideal candidate, but the one who wasn’t quite as bad as the others. That was especially true here in Rio, where they were voting for the governor between a powerful figure from the evangelical church and Pezao, who represents the previous hated governor Serge Cabral’s regime. In the end, Pezao won, another example of people voting for continuation rather than change.

In the case of the president Dilma Rousseff, 51 per cent of votes is hardly a resounding endorsement. After such a nasty campaign on both sides, that comes as no surprise. It wasn’t unusual to see fights and arguments in the streets here between fans of Dilma and her challenger, PSDB’s Aecio Neves. Television debates focused on character assassinations and generally inaccurate scaremongering rather than policy. Social media was full of vitriol from both sides, with Aecio supporters blaming voters in the poor north east for his defeat, even while the majority in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the well-off state which Aecio is from, voted for the Workers’ Party and Dilma.

It is fair to say with an abstention rate of about 20%, in a country where voting is a legal obligation, that many were disillusioned. It is still quite difficult to believe that this is the country where millions took to the streets to protest in 2013. Many people I know who voted for more radical, left-wing candidates in the first round transferred their votes to Dilma for the second round, as the “menos mal” option. They saw Aecio as a step into the past, a representative of Brazil’s elite and a spoiled playboy. A cutting resurfaced of an interview from his student days in the United States, in which he said that all Brazilians had maids, and joked about never having made his own bed. The project of social inclusion which many see as beginning in earnest under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government was one they couldn’t turn their back on.

Critically, the economy boomed under Lula and it has stalled in recent years, leading many in the business community to back a change under Aecio. But it seems that Brazilians haven’t forgotten the advances of the Lula years. In case they were about to, Lula himself was a constant on the campaign trail, appearing in the TV propaganda and even on the Dilma stickers supporters wore. He was side by side with Dilma for her victory speech last night. Many think he will run again in 2018. People often talk about social issues as being totally separate to the success of the economy, but with inequality comes instability, and invariably crime and other issues. Having large numbers of people who are unable to participate in the market stalls growth, and when a small group of people run everything it is hardly an incentive to become more competitive and efficient. Perhaps voters recognised this.

Nevertheless, Brazil’s interminable bureaucracy is in dire need of sorting out, and people are tired of corruption scandals. Dilma said in her speech that she doesn’t believe Brazil is a divided nation, but the viciousness of this electoral campaign suggests otherwise. While 95 per cent of Brazilians own a TV, only 57 per cent have access to proper sewage. It is a country with one of the biggest rich poor gaps in the world, where those who enjoy its riches are impatient to see Brazil reach its promise, forgetting about those who are lagging behind. While the markets are already showing their disapproval of Dilma’s victory, the next four years will reveal if the choice was really the “menos mal” for Brazil and its citizens.

Something Brazil’s election candidates aren’t talking about

Jandira Magdalena dos SantosPicture: Jandira Magdalena dos Santos, 27

Today 57 people (so far) have been arrested for being part of a secret abortion gang in Rio de Janeiro. The police revealed they had performed abortions on girls as young as 13, one of many facts which was uncovered in a 15-month investigation in which 80 women gave evidence. It is a crime to have an abortion in Brazil, except in exceptional circumstances such as rape, if the mother’s life is in danger or if part of the foetus’ brain is missing. Yet it is hard to understand why a 13-year-old girl should have to resort to an illegal abortion clinic to get a termination. Police point out illegal abortions in Brazil are a moderate moneyspinner, with gangs making an average R$300,000 per month (that’s about £79,000, or $125,000). We don’t know what motivates each individual (including doctors and lawyers) to participate in such a scheme, but the scale of it inevitably points to a demand which is not being met legally.

Now we are in the second round of Brazil’s elections, it is worth remembering that the two presidential candidates are against changing abortion law. That includes the Workers’ Party incumbent, former guerrilla (and still a woman) Dilma Rousseff. In the last election in 2010, she actually denied being pro-choice when it comes to abortion. Her rival Aecio Neves has reiterated several times he will not change the law if elected. Other social issues have taken centre stage, including gay rights which I wrote about here. But despite two recent horrific deaths of women whose abortions went wrong, both of which have been major news here, the topic has not lit up electoral debates. I have read many impassioned editorials, even in the mainly conservative Brazilian mainstream press, asking for a change in the law, but the public has not got behind it as a cause. Why is that? Well, it could be something to do with the fact that a survey in 2010 found that 82% of Brazilians don’t believe abortion law here needs to be changed.

Brazil is famously the biggest Catholic country in the world, and even if that is gradually changing, no doubt those attitudes still have a strong influence, seeping into the culture over time and invisibly shaping morals and beliefs. The trouble with criminalising personal choices is that the wrong people can suffer as a result. Jandira Magdalena dos Santos was 27 when she disappeared in August. Four months’ pregnant and desperate, she had told her father she wanted to get an abortion. He talked to her on the phone, reassuring her, telling her that they would go together to find a clinic. That phonecall was the last time they ever spoke. The burnt remains of her body were found two days later, missing fingertips and teeth, inside a car. For whatever reason, Jandira went alone to the clinic, and something went wrong during the operation.  Those responsible, fearing repercussions for their involvement in an illegal business as well as her death, had done everything possible to disguise her identity. While police were able to make a genetic match on her body, Jandira was still buried without being officially identified due to the measures they took. “The worst thing is that they mutilated her,” her father said at the funeral.

Elizângela Barbosa already had three children when she fell pregnant, and decided not to have the fourth. Aged 32, she tried to take medication to end the pregnancy, but the attempts were not successful. It looked like the only option was to try a clandestine clinic. A driver admitted being told to take her to a nearby hospital after complications, though she did not make it there alive. She lost her life minutes before arriving at the hospital. An autopsy later found she still had a plastic tube in her uterus when she died.

Both deaths are horrific in their unique, separate ways. It would be impossible to say that the burnt and mutilated body, reminiscent of a drug gang murder, is any worse than the poignant image of a lifeless body arriving in a car driven by a stranger outside a hospital, too late to be saved. What is saddest of all is that they could have been prevented, always the worst thing to have to accept with any death. The huge police operation today will likely succeed in putting people behind bars who did indeed break the law; but even if 82% of people here disagree with me, I think it is high time that law was changed. What a pity there is no chance of that happening as a result of the elections on the 26th of this month.