Luiza Erundina, 79, remembers what it was like to be the first woman elected mayor of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, in 1988. “I was discriminated [against] even inside my party because I’m a woman, a leftist, and from the northeast [one of Brazil’s poorest regions],” she told me.
Erundina, who this year served as Marina Silva’s campaign coordinator and was reelected for another term in the Chamber of Deputies, said that Brazil’s campaign-finance system is corrupt and beholden to special economic interests, and that its male-led parties are sexist. In 2002, she tried to pass legislation that set aside 30 percent of each party's candidate-recruitment ads and candidate-training funds for women. Ultimately, the government agreed in 2009 to a limit of 10 percent and 5 percent for these activities, respectively. Erundina has also proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee one leadership position for a woman on each major congressional committee. Seven years after it was first introduced, the measure has yet to be voted on.
One of the few women who has a top party position is Miguelina Vecchio, vice president of the leftist Democratic Labor Party. In June, she threatened to sue her own party unless it geared 10 percent of its recruitment ads toward women, in accordance with Brazilian law. “Parties choose women [candidates] with no real intention to be politicians, only to make sure that the votes will go to men,” she said.
This year, Vecchio unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies. Two days ahead of the vote, I spoke with her by phone while she was traveling to a rally in a city that was almost 190 miles from her hometown, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, in southern Brazil. “How would I pay for the gas I’m using for this trip if I didn’t have the party’s support?” she asked. “When I ran for the first time, in 1992, for city council, I didn’t even have a car and did the campaign using public transportation.”
“It’s an electoral crime what parties do to women here—including my party,” she added. In her opinion, 30 percent of legislative posts, not ballot lists, should be reserved for women.
Female candidates who are recruited merely to fulfill the quota rather than run a serious campaign are known in Brazil as “orange candidates”—a term with murky origins—and in March Marco Aurélio Mello, the president of the Superior Electoral Court, publicly acknowledged their existence. He requested that regulatory bodies be empowered to sue and sanction parties that don’t abide by the quota law. The Court also put out a TV ad to encourage women to register as candidates. The narrator’s voice switches from male to female midway through the ad to emphasize that women’s voices should be heard.
Women aren’t the only underrepresented demographic group in Brazilian politics. There are no legally mandated quotas, for instance, for black or indigenous candidates. This year, Brazilians of African descent—which includes those who identify as black or mixed-race, and who make up 51 percent of the population—accounted for 55 percent of all voters. The election marked the first time that the Superior Electoral Court asked candidates to disclose their race, and 41 percent of candidates declared that they were of African descent.