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As Brazil’s President Dilma Will Have to Prove She’s No Lula’s Puppet

Dilma RousseffThough less than a week has passed since the crucial Venezuelan National Assembly elections, all eyes have already turned to Brazil, as it heads into general elections on October 3rd. This Sunday, Brazilians will cast their votes not only for the next president, but also for members of the bicameral Congresso Nacional, as well as state governors and legislators.

All 513 seats in the Congresso’s Chamber of Deputies are up for grabs, in addition to two-thirds of the 81 Federal Senate seats. Should no presidential candidate receive over 50 percent of the vote, a run-off will take place on October 31st.

Unlike many of his Latin American counterparts, the wildly popular incumbent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has commendably dismissed calls to override Brazil’s two-term limit and run for reelection.

Instead, Lula has endorsed his former Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, as the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate. The presidential race pits Rousseff against the former governor of the state of São Paulo, José Serra of the Social Democrat Party (PSDB).

In addition to the PT and the more conservative PSDB, there are dozens of active political parties in Brazil. No party has ever achieved a majority in the legislature, so the nation is accustomed to forming high-functioning coalition governments.

In 2006, for example, the PT won the greatest percentage of votes, which still only amounted to a mere 15 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and 19.2 percent in the Federal Senate.

Nevertheless, as president, Lula was able to effect significant domestic policy reform, particularly in the areas of poverty and education, in addition to maintaining enormous popular approval.

At present, it looks as though it will take a significant turn of events to derail Rousseff’s presidential campaign; as of September 30th, she had roughly 52 percent support in polls, just enough to win the election without a run-off.

Her popularity skyrocketed following public backing from President Lula, who retains a quite incredible 70 percent popularity rating in Brazil. Rousseff has committed to persevering with the incumbent leader’s successful economic policies, which have combined support for open markets with a commitment to significant governmental intervention where necessary.

Various political scandals have become the subject of mainstream attention during Rousseff’s campaign, including her time as a guerilla fighter against Brazil’s military dictatorship in her youth, as well as corruption charges against one of her aides. Nonetheless, at present, it does not appear that the opposition has sufficiently capitalized on these scandals.

Assuming she does win Sunday’s election, Rousseff will become the first female head of state in Brazil and, arguably, one of the most powerful women on the planet. Ironically, an initial challenge will be to partially shake off her connection to Lula, whose endorsement originally placed her in a position to win.

Already it is being suggested that Rousseff will be (a la Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin) essentially a puppet for the continued rule of her predecessor. Rousseff will be eager to stamp her authority on what is likely to be an extremely important time for Brazil.

Rousseff will be inheriting a country in transition. Thanks to massive economic growth under Lula, Brazil now straddles the First and Third Worlds. Rousseff will be tasked with overseeing Brazil’s continued development, a fact she acknowledged in a recent televised debate in which she said her “goal is to make Brazil a developed country.”

A pragmatist with a history of fighting with her ideological compatriots as much as her political opposition, many see her as the perfect woman for the job. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Interviews with nearly two dozen former and current colleagues and friends paint a picture of a talented and sometimes ruthless technocrat who has also proven flexible and ambitious enough to rise through government.”

In her previous government posts, she was well known for successfully balancing ideology and pragmatic commitments, as well as pushing for market reforms and closer relationships with business interests. These are many of the same traits that have been attributed to Lula, and cited as reasons for his overwhelming political and economic success.

The coming decade will almost certainly be one of Brazil’s most dramatic. With ongoing economic growth, an increasing international presence, and the exciting prospect of hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, there will be an enormous amount of attention on Rousseff.

Brazil is on the cusp of becoming a world power, the first of its kind in Latin America. If Rousseff wins Sunday’s election, the world will wait with bated breath to see if she can live up to the high expectations set for the region’s rising star.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: coha@coha.org.

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