Ultimately, the forecasts and polls were proven true. Having overcome the stumbling block of her failure to win in the first round, Dilma Rousseff, head of the Workers’ Party (PT) and protégé of outgoing president Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, defeated her rival Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSBD) in the presidential elections of October 31. With her victory, Rousseff, a 62-year-old economist who graduated from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul state, becomes the first woman to occupy the presidency of her country, following 35 men who held that position in the country’s long history. In recent years, Brazil has gained a reputation for its spectacular economic management, supported by restrictive monetary and fiscal policy; the increase in the size of its middle class; the strength of its social planning; and its ability to attain ‘investment grade’ status.

The path that led Rousseff to become the next occupant of the Planalto Palace on January 1, 2011, has not been a straight line. The candidate of the charismatic Lula has had to face many obstacles. The outgoing president is barred from re-election by the country’s Constitution. Among those obstacles, notes Carlos Malamud, chief researcher on Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute: “She is a woman, and she doesn’t come from the PT, Lula’s ‘workers’ party.’ She comes from a similar party (the PDT, which is also from the left); then she links up with the PT (starting from 2001); and then to the government (where she becomes Minister of Energy in 2003). This brings her more credibility, and strengthens Lula’s capacity to make this selection.”
It was Lula, who began his administration in 2003 and was re-elected in 2006, who decided that Rousseff, a native of Minas Gerais in the southeast of the country, would become the candidate of his party in the elections. In November 2008, Lula named his successor to the press, and said “I want Brazil after me to be governed by a woman, and there is already an appropriate person; that’s Dilma.”
Malamud explains that the growing role of women in the labor sector and even in the politics of the continent – both Argentina and Costa Rica have woman presidents – means that this is the right time for a woman to reach the presidency of Brazil. Nevertheless, he also believes that in referring to the gender of Rousseff “there is also an attempt on the part of Lula to justify and reaffirm his choice.”
An electoral career
Rousseff’s candidacy began to gain strength in 2008, although already in 2006, after the reelection of Lula, some local media said she was in the race for the presidency. In 2008, Rousseff’s chances were slight; she only had about 2% support in the polls, compared with 38% for Serra. In 2009, her candidacy took even another turn when she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer that it would then take her [only a] few months to overcome. As if this weren’t enough, despite the fact that she is a cultured woman with a fascinating past, she lacked the charisma of the man who was protecting her.
Rousseff, the daughter of a Bulgarian communist who immigrated to Brazil after the Second World War, has a strong character, and is often described with antipathy; she is known as the Iron Lady. She had a turbulent past as guerrilla within the Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard, a communist group that opposed the military regime (1964-85). Her activism, which began at the age of 16, led to prison in 1970, where she spent three years and was tortured.
“Her lack of charisma became obvious throughout the electoral campaign,” stresses Marlise Matosa, head of the political science department of the UFMG, the Federal University of Minas Gerais state. Lula, who was aware of Rousseff’s limitations in this area, threw all of his popularity –- 80% of Brazilians support him – into his protégé, accompanying her during all of her appearances and making declarations in which he never tired of stressing her virtues.
The campaign also tried to soften the supposedly less than amiable character of Rousseff. This even led her to attend the famous carnivals, where she even dared to take some dance steps. Stylists worked on her appearance, and she managed to lose some 12 kilos [about 26 pounds] before the vote took place.
It was also said that she lacked parliamentary experience, and that she had not occupied any popularly elected position. However, in reality Rousseff was the candidate of ‘continuismo’ – the doctrine of ‘continuation.’ Lula made that clear on numerous occasions. Even from the economic point of view, he said she was an orthodox woman, and that under her leadership “there will not be any moves backward or any adventures [forward]…. We are not going to change the past rules of the game in the middle of the match.”
The combination of these factors gave her barely 2% of the backing in 2008, but that wound up becoming 30% [of the electorate] compared with 35% for Serra in February of this year. By May, the two candidates were tied at 37%. Ultimately, Rousseff wound up victorious, with 56.05% of the votes , beating Serra, who got 43.95%.
A technical profile
Rousseff’s past as a former guerrilla fighter should not influence her style of leadership or the decisions that she will take at the helm of the government, according to Malamud. “It is clear her experience with a guerrilla organization has forged her character, and the torture [she experienced] must have influenced her persona and her character. But I don’t believe that it is going to be a decisive or determining fact.” On the other hand, he adds that “neither is she the first person in a position of power in Latin America who comes with experience as a guerrilla (Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua is another); or who supported of coup [d’etat] (Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has that experience) or was even a priest (Fernando Lugo, current President of Paraguay).
Experts note that Rousseff has a decisively technical background. What stands out is her skill at management and her experience in governmental positions. “She is very efficient in her work, and quite systematic,” says Malamud. This was demonstrated in the years when she took part in Lula’s government; first as the minister of energy, from 2003 to 2005; and later, from March 2010, when she became chief of staff and cabinet head; a strategic post from which she controlled the strings of power in the country. However, the post where she gained the greatest visibility among the electorate was as coordinator of the PAC, the Program for the Acceleration of Growth, an ambitious plan that combines building infrastructure and social services, which was created in 2006.
As a result, Antonio Flavio Testa, political scientist at the University of Brasilia (UnB), believes that the president-elect’s leadership style will be “much more focused on making managerial moves than political ones.” According to João Paulo Peixoto, professor and researcher at the Center of Advanced Studies of Government and Public Administration at UnB, Rousseff “has demonstrated that she has a very different style from Lula. The President [Lula] has a unique personality, as well as charisma –which is something that his successor has not demonstrated.” So he believes that her greatest challenge will be to impose her own style. “Or, that is to say, free herself from the ghost and the popularity of President Lula.”
Constructing her cabinet
Considering the current government’s approval rating, making a comparison with its predecessor is inevitable, says Peixoto. “Substituting for someone whose popularity is on the decline is much easier than substituting for a president whose approval rating is on the rise, as in the case of Lula.” So he believes that the first step that Rousseff should take is to try to free herself from the image of dependency on the former president in order to impose herself politically.
Starting from now, Rousseff has to construct her cabinet, which is something that will not be easy, given the different interests and positions of the coalition of parties around the PT, which have been wrapped up in the candidacy of Rousseff. For example, it is assumed that the vice president-elect Michel Temer, leader of PMDB party, her allies, would seek to use the weight of their party, to occupy important posts in the future cabinet.
On the one hand, there is speculation that there will be a struggle between Antonio Palocci and Jose Dirceu for jobs in the future administrations. Palocci and Dirceu were two strong men of the first Lula government who were derailed from presidential careers by corruption scandals. Palocci, who was finance minister and managed Rousseff’s campaign, is widely viewed as the next chief of staff. Dirceu also approved the president-elect during her campaign, and was chief of staff between 2003 and 2005.
Given the complex pieces that the president-elect will have to put together in this power game, Testa believes that Rousseff should maintain her ties with Lula’s skills at political negotiation. However, Testa warns that “this capacity for negotiation will have less importance after the next elections; that is to say, beginning in 2012.”
Everyone is talking about the role that Lula will play in national politics from now on. Matos believes that “he must be exhausted, and has no interest in participating in the [new] government. In addition, he should be relaxed because his government will be an important one in the history of the country.” On the other hand, Matos adds, “Rousseff doesn’t have the personality of someone who lets herself be supervised [by others]; she is a strong leader.”
Nevertheless, Malamud wonders about how Rousseff will express his loyalty to Lula. “If her loyalty is with the position [of the presidency], then the tensions with the mentor will increase. If it is with her mentor himself [Lula], her ability to exercise her position [as president] will be directly proportional. Either she her obligation is to the job [of president] or it is to her mentor [Lula], with all that that implies.”
Malamud believes that “when she chooses her cabinet, we are going to be able to see the first signs of what she wants to do; in what direction she wants to go; and what her relationship with Lula will be. Will there be a total restructuring of the cabinet, or will there be a sort of transitional government which has the same ministers from here on for six months or for a year?”
The challenge of being a woman
This will not be her only challenge. Rousseff will also have to answer history. In the viewpoint of Peixoto, the fact that she is the first woman to win a presidential election in Brazil is a great responsibility. He compares her with Obama, the first man of color to be elected president in the U.S., and with Lula, the first worker to lead his country.
Matos agrees, also stressing that Brazil is a deeply conservative country when it comes to equality of the sexes. “She will also be exposed [to criticism], and there will be someone who claim that something didn’t go well just because she is a woman.” This will happen, despite the fact that “much progress has been made in previous governments; not only in that of Lula, but also in the administration of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002), and with the strengthening of policies aimed at women in important areas of progress.”
According to Matos, the arrival of Rousseff will lead to greater access for women in the labor market and to a lower level of discrimination. “Certainly, she will deal with a development agenda that takes into consideration elements that were not considered by men, such as violence against women (endemic in the country), since there can be no sustainable development when women are in that situation.”
Testa also believes that Rousseff will give priority to women in public positions, “as a way of maintaining a sustainable base and favoring the development of public policies that favor women in order to reduce the inequality of the sexes that is very extensive in the country.”
As for the role that Rousseff will play in foreign policy, Malamud notes that Brazil’s foreign relations are very complicated. “The foreign ministry has an important role, not only under Lula, but it also had it with Cardoso. But Presidents tend to rule when it comes to foreign policy. We’ll see in the case of Rousseff if this is going to be the case or if, on the contrary, the foreign minister recovers part of the decision making power that he once had. We’ll see this when she names her foreign minister.”
There are areas where the experts believe there is a consensus about the government’s priorities. One is infrastructure, because of the need to comply with the country’s commitments regarding the 2014 FIFA World Cup (of soccer) and the 2016 Olympic Games. Other areas are health and education, because “it is not possible to imagine growth and development without better indexes of education.”