Protesters rally against leading Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at Cinelandia Square in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 29. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

With just one week to go before Brazil’s Oct. 7 presidential elections, up to 10 percent of the country’s male voters remain undecided — and roughly 19 percent of female voters. Many voters and observers, both inside and outside Brazil, are worried about the current front-runner, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who is expected to win enough votes to compete in the runoff slated for Oct. 28 — and women may be key to preventing his election.

But Brazilian women matter in many more ways than simply as voters in the presidential election. The federal and state legislatures have 1,626 seats up for grabs on Oct. 7 as well — and currently, less than 12 percent of those are held by women. Here’s what’s at stake.

1. Brazil has Latin America’s most male-dominated legislature

Of the world’s 10 countries with the highest percentages of women in their legislatures, five are in Latin America. That does not include Brazil, ranked at 156 out of 193 countries, where women hold only 11 percent of the seats in Brazil’s lower house of parliament.

Why? Cross-national studies suggest the barriers include traditional gender norms that consider women out of place in public life; racial and gendered inequities in such key political resources as time, money, and informal networks; electoral rules; and parties. Those interwoven factors, together with formal and informal rules and norms, produce and sustain a resilient good old boys’ club within formal politics.

In Brazil, public opinion favors women in politics. But power remains disproportionately in the hands of white men. And the country’s often weakly organized and male-dominated parties have been unable or unwilling to recruit and support women candidates.


2. Formal rules to mitigate male overrepresentation have done little

Brazil has had a gender quota for legislative elections since 1998: Each party’s slate of candidates for the lower house and state assemblies must be at least 30 percent women. But women remain underrepresented. That’s partly because, despite the law, the parties ignore the quota. Between 1998 and 2006, only 16 percent of the parties’ slates competing for the lower house of parliament did in fact include 30 percent women. Even when they do nominate women, they don’t give them the funds or support they need to win. Percentages were higher during the elections from 2010 to 2018 — on paper at least. But at times, parties have reached those goals formally but fictitiously, running phantom or ghost candidates — women who are not formally running or may not even know their candidacy has been registered.

The 2018 congressional contest will be Brazil’s first national and state elections with corporate campaign financing banned, a consequence of a 2015 Supreme Court ruling and new campaign finance laws passed in 2017. In prior lower-house elections, winning candidates on average received about half their funds from corporate sources. To replace corporate donations, last fall Congress created a new electoral fund. The Supreme Electoral Court is requiring parties to allocate 30 percent of their share of the Electoral Fund to women’s campaigns.

But parties have been creatively evading that requirement, finding ways to reroute those funds to men. How? They’ve run more than the usual percentage of women for vice president (38.5 percent), vice governor (36.5 percent), and Senate substitute, who will assume office if the elected senator has to step down (27.7 percent). That way, parties can channel the “women’s” funds to tickets headed by men, and still comply with the rule.

3. Women are mobilizing for women’s rights

In 2016, Brazil’s overwhelmingly male parliament voted to impeach Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first female president. The impeachment included parliamentarians chanting “Tchau Querida” (Bye, Dear), and a popular sticker that suggested violent sexual acts against her. Rousseff’s impeachment was followed by a government mostly of established white male elites. Rousseff denounced her removal from office as sexist, and feminists throughout the country have joined forces to support her and highlight the ways in which austerity policies and labor law reforms imposed by Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, would disproportionately affect women, especially women of color.

Two years later, Marielle Franco, a black lesbian municipal councilor from Rio de Janeiro was assassinated on her way home from an event where she spoke about black women’s rights — and her death sparked mass protests throughout the country. Many interpreted her assassination as an attempt to silence and exclude a black queer woman from politics. It may have had the opposite effect, with women — especially women of color — running for office at record levels. Many explicitly say they are doing so to carry out Franco’s legacy. Tellingly, women make up 38.8 percent of black candidates and only 30.3 percent of white candidates in this election.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro’s campaign has catalyzed a broad-based women’s coalition. Almost 3 million women (and counting) with different ideological and partisan leanings have joined a Facebook group called Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro, or Women United Against Bolsonaro. Although it’s been hacked and one of its group administrators has been attacked on the street, it organized at least 195 events with tens of thousands of women to take to the streets this past weekend to protest his candidacy, and has run an accompanying social media campaign #EleNão (#NotHim).

The barriers may be high — but women appear to be in a more serious position to change Brazil’s political culture than they ever have before.

Malu A.C. Gatto (@MaluGatto) is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of political science at the University of Zurich.

Pedro A. G. dos Santos (@Professor_Dos) is an associate professor of political science at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Kristin N. Wylie (@KristinNWylie) is an assistant professor of political science at James Madison University.