Riding coattails of popular Brazilian president, former radical expected to win

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 7:55 PM

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, once dubbed "the most popular politician on Earth" by President Obama, cannot seek reelection in this country of 200 million.

But you wouldn't know it from his constant appearances at political rallies and in slick, 10-minute television ads ahead of a presidential election Sunday.

With an 80 percent approval rating after eight years in office, the bearded, roly-poly former union leader who oozes charisma is everywhere, virtually assuring victory for his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff.

With the man simply known as Lula at her side, Rousseff is now more than 20 points ahead of her closest challenger and poised to become the country's first female president. Political analysts say she might win the first round of voting with the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

"Lula came from a poor family, but Dilma? I don't know," Maria Ferreira dos Santos, 38, said at a Rousseff rally in one sprawling slum. "But he is probably putting in someone who he knows will be on the side of the poor because he is on the side of the poor."

To Brazilians who know anything about her, Rousseff, 62, is simply "the Iron Lady." With a reputation of being a strong-willed and no-nonsense civil servant, the next likely caretaker of the world's eighth-largest economy seems to lack the common touch that is the hallmark of the left-of-center populist Lula.

Daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant and a schoolteacher, Rousseff grew up in an upper-middle class family insoutheastern Brazil and veered toward radical politics in the 1960s, when the country was ruled by a military dictatorship. A leader of an urban guerrilla cell, she was considered a prize catch when security agents tracked her down in a Sao Paulo bar in 1970. Her jailers tortured her with electric shocks and hung her upside down from a metal bar.

Groomed for power

After she was released nearly three years later, she resumed studying economics, which she had put aside during her years as a subversive. By the mid-1980s, as dictatorship gave way to democracy, she began running finances for the southern city of Porto Alegre. After joining Lula's Workers' Party, she was tapped to run the energy ministry. In 2005, after a corruption scandal felled Jose Dirceu, she became Lula's chief of staff.

From that powerful perch, she helped the president oversee a multibillion-dollar effort to revamp infrastructure and carry out popular anti-poverty programs.

"She's competent, she appoints good people, she knows how to delegate," said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia. "She's also considered a task master, with whip in hand."

That was the image many Brazilians apparently had. So when Lula tapped her as his successor, she was prepared for a makeover.

A celebrated plastic surgeon gave her an eyelid lift, and her heavy glasses were replaced by contact lenses. She now wears colorful, trendy outfits instead of stuffy monochromatic suits. Speech coaches have helped her tone down the accent she acquired from working in the country's far south, a wealthy region that is a world away from the poor northeast where Lula was raised, said Fleischer, the political scientist.

Rousseff got a new hairdo from Celso Kamura, stylist to actresses and models in Sao Paulo. He has regularly met her on the campaign trail to ensure that her new look - a short, youthful cut with reddish highlights - is just so.

Kamura said he showed Rousseff pictures of Carolina Herrera, the elegant Venezuelan fashion designer, and suggested they copy her look. "She liked it and thought it was the way to go because it was simple and didn't require much fuss," Kamura said. "One thing for sure that I knew I had to do was soften up that hard image."

Pulling ahead

In recent weeks, Rousseff gained quickly at the expense of rival Jose Serra, a member of Brazil's Social Democratic Party and former governor of Sao Paulo, who has trailed her in opinion polls.

Analysts say her candidacy has benefited from the country's low inflation, strong economic growth and social policies that have lifted 30 million Brazilians into the middle class. In a recent debate, she touted the government's ability to oversee economic growth while delivering what she called "an extraordinary improvement" in the quality of life. "I would continue that process," she pledged.

As the election draws closer, it seems as if the stars have aligned in Rousseff's favor. Revelations of an influence-peddling scheme involving her successor as chief of staff, Erenice Guerra, have provided little momentum for Serra, even after he aggressively sought to link Rousseff to the scandal.

And then her daughter had a baby boy, Rousseff's first grandchild, providing her handlers with new photo opportunities. "Dilma has difficulty communicating directly with the electorate, but in the end, it has not been a serious problem," said Paulo Zocchi, a longtime Workers' Party member and political journalist.

The outcome appears clear in up-and-coming areas of Sao Paulo such as Paraisopolis, a vast favela, or slum, where many talk of improvements in their lives.

As Rousseff entered a community center during a recent campaign swing, Sergio Bezerra de Lima pushed up against the crowd to get a better look.

Lima, 52, a chauffeur, said he had not known much about Rousseff until she started campaigning in earnest with her former boss.

"Dilma Rousseff will be a great president," he said, "just like Lula."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company