- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2012

RIO DE JANEIRO — Manuela D'Avila hopes she and women like her will change the face of government in Brazil, a country that has lagged behind its neighbors in female presence in politics despite the election of Dilma Rousseff as the nation’s first female president.

Ms. D'Avila, a two-time state lawmaker who is leading the mayoral race in Porto Alegre, Brazil’s 10th-largest city, is among an unprecedented number of women running for municipal offices in 2012 elections.

Forty-seven other women are candidates to run the capitals of Brazil’s 26 states. The field of contenders is still shifting, but it’s a large increase from the last elections, when just 28 women ran for mayor of state capitals.

Experts say this surge in female candidates signals a new eagerness by political parties to capitalize on Mrs. Rousseff’s popularity.

During her tenure, six ministers tarred by accusations of corruption were pushed out of office, earning Mrs. Rousseff a reputation for being strong, capable and willing to get tough on dirty politicians.

“She has a different attitude, she’s showing that she has guts,” said political scientist Maria do Socorro Sousa Braga of the Federal University of Sao Carlos in Sao Paulo state. “This is going to help women go after what they want, become autonomous, take on more, join the fight.”

At the end of her first year in office, Mrs. Rousseff has a 72 percent approval rating and nine women in her 24-member Cabinet, compared to three under her predecessor.

“With Dilma’s election, we saw the voters trust women,” Ms. D'Avila said. “With Dilma’s decision to bring so many women into her government, she’s showing again that women have a high capacity for governance.”

Mrs. Rousseff’s gender was not an issue during the elections. The debates centered on policies, and much of her support came from voters who wanted a continuation of priorities set by her popular Workers’ Party mentor, then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Nevertheless, the image of Mrs. Rousseff, a former Marxist rebel turned career technocrat, receiving the presidential sash in the company of her daughter was powerful.

As president, she lacks Mr. da Silva’s charisma, but Brazilian voters are reading her no-nonsense demeanor as a sign of efficiency and focus on the work to be done, and they want to see more of that.

This popular support might help female candidates such as Ms. D'Avila narrow the political gender gap, Ms. Braga said. “There is great incentive among the parties participating in Dilma’s government to get women to run.”

In Mrs. Rousseff’s home state of Minas Gerais, the number of women running in the municipal elections in her Workers’ Party went from about 10 percent in 2008 to about 30 percent in 2012, said Congress member Reginaldo Lopes, a local party leader.

Dilma has shown that women have strength and can govern as well or better than men,” Mr. Lopes said. “She’s doing away with the ‘machismo’ that men and even some women had.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2011, Brazilian women have reached parity or exceeded men in three of the four key areas examined: access to health, participation in the labor market and educational attainment.

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