Brazil has all but ushered in its first female president in advance of the Oct. 3 general election. Despite lacking her boss’s charisma, widespread popularity and elocution, Dilma Rousseff, the 62-year-old chief of staff to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (or “Lula,” as he is affectionately known), is riding a widening gap in the polls with 50.5 per cent popularity, according to a Sensus poll. Her main opposition, São Paulo Gov. José Serra of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PDSB), sits at 26.4 per cent, down from 28 per cent in August. Rousseff’s surge in the polls is widely attributed to the popular outgoing president’s early endorsement of her as his successor, and his ongoing involvement in her campaign. “Today there is no one more prepared to govern our country than our future president, our comrade,” Lula said, pointing at Rousseff at a small-town appearance over the summer.
The president is enjoying 80-plus per cent approval ratings as his second and final term ends, arguably the kind of popularity that can rub off on even the most unlikely of candidates. “I can’t think of any other case in Latin America in the recent past where this has been the case: a twice-elected president simply saying, ‘Trust me,’ ” Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American program at Johns Hopkins University, has said. “The attitude is, ‘If Lula says she is the right person, she is the right person.’ ”
Others aren’t so sure she is. “Dilma has no leadership, she has no contact with Congress,” former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said last March. Indeed, Rousseff, despite having climbed the ranks within the party, has never actually won an election. But despite her lack of popular appeal, the candidate—she joined Lula’s Workers’ Party in 2000 and served as his minister of energy from 2003 to 2005—has earned herself visibility and legitimacy as the face of the president’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), a $301-billion investment in infrastructure from 2007 to 2010.
An economist with a background in energy administration, Rousseff has run a campaign that hasn’t been without its share of controversy. Her party has recently come under fire due to an alleged kickback scheme involving her successor as chief of staff. But controversy surrunding her runs deeper than that—as a young woman, she was involved in a far-left armed resistance against Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled for two decades from 1964 (she is credited with helping steal $2.4 million from the safe of former São Paulo governor Adhemar de Barros, and was jailed for almost three years and subjected to torture by electric shock for 22 days).
Still, all that may have added to her reputation as a strong woman, one reinforced last year when she emerged as a cancer survivor, having undergone chemotherapy to treat lymphoma cancer in April. And while critics have been calling Rousseff “Lula in a skirt,” others say that given the outgoing president’s popularity the best candidate for the job may indeed be the person who best emulates him. Or lays the ground for his return to power: while Lula is prohibited from running for a third consecutive term, he could return again in four years’ time.