Brazil elects its first female president

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010

Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla turned button-down technocrat with expertise in everything from energy to high finance, comfortably won Brazil's presidency Sunday in a contest that demonstrated voter loyalty to the man who handpicked her for the job, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

With nearly all of the votes counted in the world's fourth-largest democracy, Rousseff, 62, Lula's former chief of staff, had 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent for the challenger, Jose Serra, 68. On Jan. 1, when she is to be sworn in, Rousseff will become the country's first female president.

"I offer special thanks to President Lula," Rousseff said in a victory speech in the capital, Brasilia. "I will know how to honor his legacy. I will know how to consolidate and go forward with his work."

Political analysts consider the outcome in Brazil to be a strong show of support for the mix of generous social programs and prudent economic management. Brazilians credit Lula, who rose from shoe-shine boy to factory worker to leader of a country of almost 200 million, with transforming Brazil into a modern nation with a world-class economy and increasingly potent middle class.

That sense of pride in what Brazil has become led Manoela Monteiro, 27, a teacher, to vote for Rousseff in Sao Paulo. Under Lula, she said, she thought that her money had more buying power, and she bought her first car. "I voted for Dilma because I think the government has to continue the way it is, which is very good," she said.

Under Lula, more than 20 million Brazilians rose out of poverty, 30 million joined the lower-middle class and the country's historic, yawning gap between rich and poor got a little smaller. Brazil also joined a select group of countries given investment-grade status by international credit agencies, and it emerged from the 2008 economic crisis stronger than before.

To cap off Lula's presidency, Rio de Janeiro last year was awarded the 2016 Olympics, which many Brazilians saw as a milepost.

Hailed as "my man" and "the most popular politician on Earth" by President Obama during a 2009 summit, Lula, now 65, has an approval rating that tops 80 percent.

Brazil's president-elect is the daughter of a well-off Bulgarian immigrant father who raised his family in the prosperous city of Belo Horizonte. In the 1960s, with Brazil ruled by a military dictatorship, she joined a rebel movement and, according to Brazil's military of the time, became an urban commander.

Rousseff has told Brazilian reporters that her role in that era was political and did not involve violence. "I wore thick glasses, and I did not shoot very well," the Sao Paulo newspaper, Folha, quoted her as saying.

After her capture by the security forces in 1970, she was tortured. That included hanging upside down from a metal bar, her wrists wrapped to her ankles in an excruciatingly painful position called the "parrot's perch."

Released in 1973, she completed her studies in economics and went on to manage the finances of Porto Alegre and the energy policies of Rio Grande do Sul. A decade ago, she joined the Workers Party, caught Lula's attention and, in his first term, became his energy minister.

She was later named his chief of staff, which in Brazil is a powerful position from which Rousseff had control of the country's vast bureaucracy.

"People who doubt her abilities are plain wrong," said Riordan Roett, author of a recent book, "The New Brazil."

Foreign investors and business interests will be watching to see if Rousseff will take on nagging problems ranging from a Byzantine taxation system to an overvalued currency. Some analysts also say she has to rein in spending.

"The Lula administration overspent almost with abandon," said Amaury de Souza, a Rio de Janeiro business consultant. "And a bill will come due."

Paula Moura contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company