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

Brazil's election featured some bizarre candidates, including a former boxer, a porn actress, and a professional clown.
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.

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