Few Brazilians outside the political elite knew much about Dilma Rousseff before the presidential election campaign got under way in July. As chief of staff to the massively popular President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff had been a powerful behind-the-scenes figure who had also served as Energy Minister. But she had never had to win the hearts and minds of voters by running for political office. That was before Lula tapped her to succeed him.
In most countries, Rousseff might have been expected to use the last couple of months to tell voters what she stands for and how she plans to govern. But this is Brazil, and Lula is the most popular president in its history. Rousseff did not have to articulate a detailed election platform; she simply had to convince voters that she'll continue Lula's work. She has managed that with ease, and it has all but guaranteed she will become the leader of the world's fifth most populous nation and eighth most powerful economy.
"Lula has an 80% approval rating and those people want Lula to continue," said Carlos Manhanelli, the president of the Brazilian Association of Political Consultants. "Who is going to best provide continuity? Dilma. And the Workers' Party have... realized that if they can present her as Lula in a skirt, she will get elected."
With the election just two days away, Dilma, as everyone in this informal nation calls her, is polling around 50% enough to guarantee her first place, and perhaps even the majority that would allow her to avoid a runoff ballot on Oct. 31.
If and when she does take office, it will cap a remarkable political ascent. The daughter of a well-off Bulgarian immigrant, Dilma became politically active as a teenager during the dictatorship, when she bravely took up arms in a leftist guerrilla movement against the military regime. Although she never fired a weapon in anger, she was arrested and tortured, and spent three years in jail.
Dilma studied economics after her release in 1973, and she moved into government when the military gave up power in 1985. She served as finance secretary in Porto Alegre, and was twice state Energy Secretary of Rio Grande do Sul. Lula invited her to be his Energy Minister in 2003, and was so impressed by her performance that he charged her with running the most important programs of his second term. And last year, highlighting her "sensibility and intrepidness," he named her as his preferred successor. (Lula is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third consecutive term.)
"I can say without fear of contradiction that one of the main reasons my government was a success was down to Comrade Dilma Rousseff's ability to coordinate," Lula said.
Dilma's campaign style has been to bask in Lula's glow, and assure his supporters that she will not deviate an inch from the progressive program that made his eight-year reign such a success. That may be because Dilma herself is, in fact, an inexperienced and reluctant campaigner who appears ill at ease among crowds and on stage. And she has no need to risk proposing big ideas. Thanks to Lula's unwavering support and boosted by the lackluster campaign of her main rival her coronation is all but assured.
By suggesting Brazil needs to simply keep coasting along, however, Dilma is tempting fate. Brazil's past two presidents transformed the country from unpredictable and underperforming regional power to rising global star. Fernando Henrique Cardoso stabilized the currency and tamed inflation, privatized hundreds of inefficient state-run companies, and laid the foundations for future growth. Lula built on that by consolidating the economic gains, sharing them amongst the poor for the first time and improving the shameful social indicators that had made Brazil one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Brazil's next president, though, needs to continue that modernization process which Dilma will be in a good position to do if, as appears likely, her coalition wins majorities in both houses of the legislature. Despite Brazil's impressive growth, it remains a developing country. Its tax burden is too high, its education system too poor, its infrastructure too basic and its red tape and corruption too widespread. Urgent reforms are also needed in social security, labor policy and governance.
Dilma, 62, has not articulated how she will tackle these challenges. Whether she, or anyone, is even capable of carrying out the required reforms remains an open question and not just because she is known more as a bureaucratic combatant than a conciliator. Even Lula, with his unrivaled charisma, popularity and political skills, avoided attempting major reforms.
Dilma will rely much more heavily than Lula did on the machinery of the Workers Party, which raises some concern because of its increasingly authoritarian inclinations and recent influence-peddling scandals involving key party figures.
"Lula had a big cabinet with 40 ministers and he brilliantly used his experience in politics and as a union negotiator to put out fires," said João Augusto de Castro Neves, a political analyst with the CAC Political Consultancy firm. "There are going to be a lot of voices, there will be differences of opinion. How is she going to deal with that? It is not what she thinks about policy; that won't change much. The question is how is she going to run the government machine without it blowing up."
Dilma's managerial competence has never been questioned, even by her opponents. But uncertainty remains over whether she has what it takes to follow in Lula's footsteps. Her months on the campaign trail have not provided the answers; they'll more likely emerge only when she's in power.