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Brazil's Chief of Staff Minister Eliseu Padilha (3rd R), interim President Michel Temer (2nd R), Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles (R) are seen during the first ministerial meeting at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, May 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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By Paulo Prada

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - To the people who benefited most from the long, recently truncated rule of Brazil's leftist Workers Party, the look of the successor government could not be more disheartening.

Whereas cabinet posts over the past 13 years were often filled by women and blacks, new Interim President Michel Temer last week presented a group of 23 ministers that looked a lot like him – white, male and mostly old.

"I am not represented," says Bruno Leão, a 24-year-old business student in Rio de Janeiro, who is part of a generation of black Brazilians who earned unprecedented access to education and other socioeconomic gains because of Workers Party policies.

"All those years of struggle and it's like it didn't happen," he adds, noting that advances in civil rights, education and purchasing power remain tenuous.

Temer, a 75-year-old centrist and constitutional scholar, took over the presidency after the Senate forced the suspension of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's first woman leader, by voting on Thursday to put her on trial for breaking budget laws.

Most Brazilians backed Rousseff's impeachment but in one of the world's biggest racial and cultural melting pots, where more than half the 200 million people identify themselves as black or mixed, the makeup of Temer's government raised alarm.

Leftists, minorities and many lower-income Brazilians fear that a deep economic recession, and the spending cuts that the new government says are essential to spur a recovery, could mean rolling back progressive policies.

"The rallying cry right now is the economy and that can become an excuse to scrap anything related to matters of inclusion, equality or culture," says Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of São Paulo.

She points to one of the first decisions by Temer: to fold a ministry of women, racial equality and human rights into the far-bigger ministry of justice, led by a man.

Rousseff's downfall marks a stunning defeat for the left in Brazil.

The Workers Party had managed for the best part of a decade to combine economic growth and fiscal responsibility with social programs that attacked poverty and promoted diversity. But its support frayed under Rousseff as the economy fell into recession and huge corruption scandals rocked the country.

In his first term, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the party's icon and Rousseff's mentor, included Marina Silva, a black environmentalist who toiled as a rubber tapper in her teens, and Gilberto Gil, an internationally acclaimed black songwriter.

Rousseff had so many women ministers and aides that male operatives in Brasília scoffed at the number of pant suits.

OLD STATUS QUO

While Brazil's constitution enshrines social benefits similar to those in Western Europe, Temer has already said pension and social security laws are the very first that need to be streamlined. He also plans labour reforms, a set of priorities that have some Brazilians worried the new government has no interest in the poor.

"It won't be hard to return to the old, exclusionary status quo when you don't even consider inclusion in the new government," says Djamila Ribeiro, a black philosopher and columnist for Carta Capital, a leftist magazine.

A commodities-fueled boom helped the Workers Party lift more than 30 million people from poverty before Brazil's economy ground to a halt.

Policies like affirmative action programs and broader scholarship opportunities, which increased enrolment at universities from around 2 percent of the young black population in 2003 to about 10 percent in 2013, created new opportunities for many once marginalized.

Yet Brazil remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. Among those who escaped poverty during the boom, most from racially mixed backgrounds, some still earn little more than $6 a day and are at risk of sliding back.

The popularity of social programs is one reason leftist candidates continue to outpoll conservatives in forecasts for 2018 presidential elections.

In an April survey by polling institute Datafolha, Lula and Silva, the former environment minister who now leads her own party, tied for the lead with about 20 percent support each. Temer, who has said he will not run, only got 2 percent of those polled.

In his first address as interim president, Temer promised to pursue business-friendly policies but keep the programs that were Workers Party hallmarks, like income assistance for poor families who keep their kids in school.

Aides say the new Cabinet was selected quickly from the ranks of parties who would support the new government. "We tried to look for women," said Eliseu Padilha, Temer's new chief of staff, "but it wasn't possible."

Some of the new government's allies and supporters say the hand wringing overlooks the need for swift economic measures.

"At the moment, more urgent than a grand discussion about the sex and colour of ministers, is knowing whether the ministers have the capacity to succeed," wrote Mansueto Almeida, a well-known economist, in a widely read blog post.

Still, critics say the cabinet also includes politicians whose past actions and discourse are at odds with the very ministries they will command.

The new agriculture minister, a wealthy soy grower who has long clashed with environmentalists because of the crop's encroachment on Amazon rainforest, is charged with regulating farming. The education minister hails from a party that sued at the Supreme Court to try to block affirmative action.

The shift risks backfiring, especially if it helps rally disillusioned leftists who fragmented because of corruption scandals and policy missteps that weakened the Workers Party.

"It would be an error for the new government to think that they are somehow representative of Brazil," says Renato Meirelles, founder of Data Popular, a research firm that specializes in the economics and behaviour of Brazil's working class. "This is a placeholder government that doesn't have anything close to a broad popular mandate."

(Additional reporting by Caio Saad; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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