Who is Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s potential next President?


When Dilma Rousseff was chosen as the Workers' Party's candidate for this year's presidential elections during the party's congregation yesterday, few were surprised. Lula has been explicit about his anointed successor for a long time. For months, Ms. Rousseff, Lula's chief of staff, who is commonly called Dilma (pronounced "Djilma"), has been on his side, inaugurating public works, shaking supporters' hands, and regularly appearing in Brazil's media. In March 2009, when Lula visited the United States, Dilma met Barack Obama, who promptly asked his campaign strategists to reject a request by Brazil's Social Democrats (PSDB) and to advise Dilma's campaign instead. Those who have worked with Ms. Rousseff describe her as "tough", "pragmatic" and "competent". Her hot temper is legendary, and Sergio Gabrielli, the boss of Petrobras, Brazil's oil giant, is said to have broken down in tears once after being reprimanded by her during her time as Energy Minister.

Yet who is Dilma, the first woman to take a serious shot at the presidency in Latin America's largest and most important country, and what can Brazil and the world expect of her? Born in 1947 into a well-to-do family in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's version of Pittsburgh, Dilma received a top-notch education. Yet, since Dilma's father was a Bulgarian immigrant, the Rousseff family was never part of the establishment. At the age of 20, Dilma engaged in one of the countless leftist student organizations created as a reaction to the military coup in 1964- similar to José Serra, her likely opponent in the presidential race. Ms. Rousseff, however, was more radical, helped coordinate armed operations, administered money obtained from bank raids, and was captured in 1970, tortured for 22 days, and released only 2 years later.

Despite this horrific experience, Rousseff returned to politics, this time within the legal framework. After graduating from university with an economics degree, she advised state politicians and, aged 38, shortly before the end of the military dictatorship, became Secretary of Finance in Porto Alegre, a large city in the South. Always known for her pragmatic hands-on approach, she developed the reputation of a skilled technocrat, and in 2001, then-presidential candidate Lula named her junior advisor on energy issues. Surrounded by leftist ideologists, Lula soon identified her as a no-nonsense problem solver who, at times in a highly undiplomatic fashion, never backed away from confrontations. As Energy Minister, Rousseff worked hard to avoid a blackout similar to that at the end of President Cardoso's term. With interests squarely opposed to those of Marina Silva, then Minister of the Environment, she convinced Lula to prioritize the need for energy over environmental concerns, which eventually led to the departure of Silva, who now runs against Rousseff as the Green Party's presidential candidate.

When asked about her rough demeanor, Ms. Rousseff retorts that women still face prejudice in Brazilian politics. "When women are in a position of authority", she explains, "they are always called overly hard and cold." If she were a man, the single mother of one daughter claims, her style would not be an issue.

After the corruption scandal in 2005 flushed out the upper echelons of the Workers' Party (PT) and almost brought down the President himself, Rousseff became chief of staff and proved to be crucial to steer the government through hard times. As early as 2007, rumours spread that Lula had chosen her to succeed him, but he did not openly speak of her as a potential candidate until 2008. Rousseff underwent a chemotherapy in 2009 to treat a lymphoma, but her doctors said she had fully recovered only 5 months later, and her health is not expected to be a problem as the prepares to run for the country's highest office.

While the campaign does not officially start until June, her strategy seems clear:  Ms. Rousseff represents the continuation of the Lula government. The Workers' Party's strategy will thus be to frame the election as a referendum on President Lula, which, with a 80% approval rating, she may very well win if Lula is able to transfer his popularity on his protégé. That is easier said than done. Lula is folksy, charming and a brilliant public speaker. Dilma, on the other hand, comes across as rather cold, and while voters are unlikely to find her unappealing, she can in no way match Lula's star power. Still, her ratings have steadily increased, although she still lags José Serra, who has not started campaigning at all. Despite opponents' attempts to portray her as a radical bomb-throwing militant, her militancy is unlikey to negatively affect her campaign. The decision not to retreat after being tortured shows, if anything, her passion for politics.

What would a President Rousseff mean for Brazil and the world? Most likely, more of the same. She is less populist and more pragmatic than Lula, and contrary to many in her party, she is aware of the importance of honoring contracts, courting investors and allowing private enterprise to flourish.  While critics expect Lula to pull the strings in the background if she became President, they most likely underestimate Ms. Rousseff's ability to claim power. In this aspect, she may very much resemble Germany's Chancellor Merkel, whose leadership ability had also been grossly undestimated before she took office. Despite her leadership abilities, party ideology may become a hindrance during her presidency. She may face insurmountable political obstacles that keep her from cutting government spending, reforming social security, modernizing labor and tax law, which sum up Brazil's most urgent problems that keep it from growing as fast as China and India. Yet, similar to Uruguay and Chile, Brazil's political system is so mature that no candidate can truly rock the boat, and even a mediocre President is unlikely to get Brazil's growth story off track.

With regards to foreign policy, Rousseff will see herself forced to continue Lula's hyperactive foreign policy, although she can impossibly fill her predecessor's shoes, who has become the darling of leaders across the globe. Brazil's South-South diplomacy, while unlikely to benefit Brazil, is likely to continue on ideological grounds. Brazil's foreign policy is currently highly personalized, and it is unclear whether a technocrat like Rousseff will be able to continue Lula's approach. Dilma is unlikely to bring fresh ideas to the table, and Brazil will continue to be on cozy terms with Iran and Venezuela. It is also likely to continue an ill-defined regional foreign policy that leaves its neighbors in the dark about Brazil's intentions.

The coming weeks and months will give us a better clue on what to expect of Ms. Rousseff. Lula's support will be crucial, but she will have to emerge eventually and expose herself to Brazil's voters and the media. While she can safely assume to win in the poor Northeast, a region where Lula is considered a saint, she will have to explain to middle-class voters in the populous Southeast how she pretends to push urgently needed reforms with a party behind her that, despite the triumph of pragmatism during the Lula years, at times seems dangerously wedged to ideology.

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Photo credit: Wilson Dias - Agência Brasil (Department of Press and Media).