Rousseff may need her mentor after Brazil poll
By John Paul Rathbone in London and Jonathan Wheatley in São Paulo
Published: October 29 2010 19:12 | Last updated: October 29 2010 19:12
If, as seems likely, Dilma Rousseff becomes the next president of Brazil at Sunday’s election, “never before in the country’s history” – to use a phrase beloved of her mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – will Brazil have had a female president.
More importantly, never before will Brazil have had such a powerful ex-president. Much as in neighbouring Argentina – where former leader Néstor Kirchner, who died on Wednesday and was colloquially known as “the Boss”, even though his wife was president – Mr Lula da Silva’s absence will leave a gaping hole in Brazilian politics.
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Investors have taken the Brazilian changeover in their stride as Ms Rousseff has pledged continuity with “Lulismo” and her predecessor’s largely sound macroeconomic policies.
“I don’t expect any major [policy] changes, at least not for the worst,” says Armínio Fraga, a former head of the Brazilian central bank.
By contrast, in Argentina, the death of Mr Kirchner, a combative politician who once told the International Monetary Fund to go to “hell”, was met by outpourings of grief – but also a market rally owing to the possible end of “Kirchnerismo”.
Nonetheless, the absence of Mr Lula da Silva, Brazil’s “boss”, will be sorely felt. Ms Rousseff is a dour if skilful technocrat who has never run for elected office before, and owes her double-digit lead in the polls to Mr Lula da Silva’s endorsement of her candidacy.
“She is very much the child of Lula,” says Timothy Power, director of Brazilian studies at Oxford university.
She has appeared testy in television debates opposite her main rival, José Serra of the centrist PSDB party, and failed to generate much excitement at rallies – even in her birthplace Belo Horizonte in the key central state of Minas Gerais, where she was campaigning on Saturday, as was Mr Serra.
Ms Rousseff will probably continue to need her mentor’s help should she win – just as Cristina Fernández, Argentina’s president, relied on her husband to keep their very personalised Peronist government on the road. That could make for a complex balancing act, even in Brazil’s more institutionalised political life.
For one, Ms Rousseff enjoys little grassroots support in her party, the leftwing PT founded by Mr Lula da Silva in 1980 but which she only joined in 2000. “The power struggles will be worse than before. Everybody knows Dilma is not Lula,” says Luciano Dias, a political consultant in Brasília.
Moreover, Brazilian politics requires a president who can cajole the governing party’s coalition partners – especially, in the PT’s case, the catch-all PMDB party, a loose coalition of regional barons renowned for their love of pork.
Coalition building is not obviously one of the tetchy Ms Rousseff’s strengths – although it was a forte of Mr Lula da Silva, a former union leader. Similarly, in Argentina, the rough and tumble of local politics was a task that Mr Kirchner usually assumed, while Ms Fernández, although a seasoned politician, played the presidential role of “front woman”.
This has led to speculation in both countries as to who will take key cabinet posts to fill out the missing skills gap. In Brazil, a further question is what Mr Lula da Silva will do next.
He has said he wants to return to his flat in São Bernardo do Campo, put up his feet and watch football with a beer. But that is unlikely to keep an energetic 65-year-old politician with an 80 per cent approval rating occupied for long.
Alternatively, Mr Lula da Silva’s international popularity and interest in Africa could lead him to a top job at the UN. But “after Lula embraced [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadi-Nejad, there’s no way the US will allow him to have a role like that,” says Mr Dias.
More likely, then, he will remain in Brazil, “help out when needed, and act as arbiter in conflicts [Ms Rousseff] can’t handle”, says political consultant Alberto Almeida. At its most sinister, that could lead to a parallel presidency, akin to Vladimir Putin’s in Russia, with Mr Lula da Silva returning to the presidency in 2014 should Ms Rousseff’s command falter.
“The temptation must certainly be there,” comments one former government minister.
In Argentina, Mr Kirchner’s death spelt the end of the country’s most powerful double act since Juan and Evita Perón.
In Brazil, by contrast, “Lulismo” – more market-friendly, less politically antagonistic, and more dependent on party support than the highly personal “Kirchnerismo” – may live on.