10/31/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Now for the Reforms

This is a guest post by Valerie Wirtschafter, a Research Associate in the Latin America Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Valerie previously worked on global health issues in Brazil.

Up until the clock struck 6:00 p.m. (EST) Sunday night, the 2014 presidential election in Brazil had the makings of a compelling Globo telenovela. It was frustrating. It was tragic. It was slanderous. It was exciting. It was scandalous.

Soon after, it was arguably for naught. With 95 percent of votes counted, Dilma Rousseff secured a second term, and the protest movement that consumed many Brazilians in 2013 appeared to now be an afterthought. It was as if the clock had simply wound back to when she won her first term in 2010, except this time the economy was growing at nowhere near 7.5 percent.

It is no secret that many Brazilians were disappointed by both options at the ballot box. Some chose to vote for four more years of Dilma in order to maintain the status quo rather than risk disastrous change. She may not be the best, but Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will return soon enough. Others pushed back, believing anyone but Dilma would be better for Brazil. They were sorely disappointed by the final result--51.6 percent for Dilma to Aecio Neves's 48.4 percent--the closest margin of victory in the history of Brazil's modern democracy.

Now that the hotly anticipated election has come and gone, there is no place to look but forward. Though it may seem like the calls for better and more during the 2013 protests fell hollow at the ballot box this year, like most things in Brazil, progress is unhurried but constant. The road ahead will be wrought with challenges, and the people who took to the streets last year--those that now feel their efforts were in vain--guide the way. In a campaign where change was an empty buzzword used by both candidates, one thing is certain: Dilma will have to make a visible effort to deliver on her promises for reform.

Presumably, the new middle class that took to the streets in droves--flush with access to consumption but frustrated by a lack of true citizenship--will only continue to expand, as more and more Brazilians are lifted out of poverty by Worker's Party (PT) programs, including the much-discussed Bolsa Familia. The PT will have to adapt to keep pace with their evolving demands or risk losing their votes altogether. After all, polling data from the second round revealed the higher a person's socioeconomic status, the more likely they were to vote against the PT.

Given the increased polarization in Congress, Dilma is already operating at a disadvantage. Congress is more divided than ever before, and the opposition party's claws are out and sharpened. With the Petrobras scandal looming over Dilma's head, calls for impeachment are muted for now but could become more impassioned, should she be implicated. However, two critical areas for reform that cross narrow partisan divides in Brazil's overwhelmingly leftist government--healthcare and education--could help cultivate continued support from the new middle class and improve the overall quality of life for all Brazilians.

For even the most zealous PT supporter, poor quality healthcare is a universally acknowledged problem in Brazil. Medical professionals who service the Unified Health System (SUS) are paid half as much as those working in the private sector, providing little incentive for doctors to continue working in the public health system. Dilma recently attempted to address the dearth of doctors by launching the program Mais Medicos (More Doctors) to bring foreign doctors--most controversially from Cuba--to service the SUS in remote areas of Brazil. However, this is only a short-term fix to a long-term problem. In order to modernize Brazil's health system, the government should incentivize doctors to remain a part of the SUS and encourage more Brazilians to graduate with medical degrees.

Perhaps more consequential, but less heavily scrutinized, is education reform. It is not enough to tout her small program Ciencia Sem Fronteiras (Science without Borders) as proof of Dilma's commitment to this issue anymore. PRONATEC--a program that expands access to vocational and technical education--will not solve Brazil's problems either. Instead, it is time for Dilma to go back to basics.

In Brazil's public schools, resources are scarce and teachers are poorly compensated. Low-quality, public primary school means less wealthy Brazilians who cannot afford private school are uncompetitive for free universities, which are paradoxically of a higher quality than private universities. Only a commitment to improving the conditions of education professionals and students will encourage a better public school system. By addressing this issue head on, poverty and crime rates--two other major issues in Brazil--will also decline.

While these reforms will be challenging, if Dilma does not make serious policy adjustments to support the new middle class, she will inadvertently sabotage her own success by alienating former beneficiaries of PT programs. Though Lula's popularity is still unparalleled, her failure to reform could potentially hurt his all-but-certain 2018 presidential bid.

Dilma's mandate is far from decisive, and her critics will be more vocal than ever before over the next four years. In a region where just two incumbents have been denied reelection in the past twenty-four years, Dilma's margin of victory is only larger than that of Nicolas Maduro, the far less charismatic heir to an ailing Venezuela. 48.4 percent of the population may have voted for Aecio, but in reality 48.4 voted for anyone but Dilma (the number is even higher if you count those who did not vote at all).

With a new four year mandate, Dilma has been given one last opportunity to shape modern Brazil as much as her predecessors. If she prefers for her legacy to not include "president who finally kicked the PT out of Planalto Palace after sixteen years in power," she'd be wise to make good on her promises.