'Tough' and 'rigorous'. But if Dilma Rousseff clinches the top job, Lula may linger as a back seat driver

  • By Thierry Ogier
  • 23 Mar 2010
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Dilma Rousseff, chief of staff for Brazil’s outgoing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is shooting for the top job at October’s polls, even though she has never contested an election. The 62 year old is firmly backed by President Lula, who, for the first time in 25 years, won’t be taking part in the presidential contest, in line with constitutional rules.

Rousseff entered politics the hard way: she joined the guerrillas during Brazil’s military regime in the 1960s and masterminded an epic robbery at a prominent politician’s house in Rio de Janeiro, according to historian Elio Gaspari. She was trained in Cuba and later jailed and tortured in her home country.

Even though she has not been a long-time militant of Lula’s Workers Party (PT), which she joined less than 10 years ago, she rose to prominence after other leading PT officials fell into disgrace following a succession of corruption scandals. For the past five years, she has held the most important government portfolio as Lula’s civil chief of staff in charge of supervising his flagship growth acceleration programme. She is also one of the main exponents of state-led development policies in the governing team.

Before she won the PT’s approval to launch her presidential bid last month, Rousseff pledged to “consider the civil service as a priority, and to boost the state apparatus”.

While many complain of her stiff and authoritarian style, Lula says: “She is very rigorous. This is a great virtue. She has to be tough.”

Prominent businessmen are also soft on Rousseff. “She has got everything to be a good president. Anyway, Lula will help, if needs be,” said Abilio Diniz, chairman of Pão de Açucar, the largest retailer in Brazil, whose firm has benefited from the consumer boom during the Lula years.

At the end of his second term Lula, whose rhetoric once scared investors, has secured a reputation as key to future economic stability, and is expected to remain as a sort of back seat driver if his candidate is elected.

But not everybody is convinced.

“Lula has shown little respect for some institutions. Regulatory agencies have been weakened, and there have been some attempts to curb press freedom. Such a pro-state backlash is counterproductive in the long run,” says a board member of a local bank.

“The financial markets underestimate the electoral risk,” he says, as Rousseff lacks Lula’s pragmatism and appears to be more radical.

  • By Thierry Ogier
  • 23 Mar 2010

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