Page last updated at 01:55 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Lula's choice set to run in Brazil's presidential poll

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

President Lula (left) and Dilma Rousseff in a photo from 12 February 2010
Dilma Rousseff will be hoping some of Lula's popularity rubs off on her

The possibility of Brazil having its first female president is set to come a step closer this week when the governing Workers' Party (PT) nominates its candidate in October's election.

Dilma Rousseff, chief of staff for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has already unofficially anointed her as his preferred successor, is the party's certain choice.

Although Ms Rousseff is a tough and seasoned political operator, she is widely seen as lacking the charisma that is the hallmark of her boss, and faces a tough fight ahead.

Her main opponent is likely to be the current governor of Sao Paulo, Jose Serra, another experienced politician, who has long sought to lead his country, and who lost to President Lula in the second round of voting in the 2002 election.

This year's campaign may have to focus on the issues rather than on personalities, as Mr Serra, of the opposition PSDB, appears equally uncomfortable in dealing with the public.

For a long period the Sao Paulo governor had a substantial lead in the opinion polls, but the gap is narrowing.

(Dilma) was Lula's choice, not the party's choice
Joao Pedro Ribeiro
Tendencias Consultancy

Ms Rousseff, as many critics have been quick to point out, has never been elected to public office, and might not have appeared the obvious choice for the battle to be head of state in a country of more than 190 million people.

But the Workers' Party, despite its promises to govern in a different manner, was battered by various corruption scandals in recent years, which combined to undermine the prospects of other potential presidential candidates.

President Lula has made his preference clear, saluting Ms Rousseff as "mother of the PAC", the growth acceleration plan which is the government's flagship economic development project for the country.

'From scratch'

"It was Lula's choice, not the party's choice. She was his choice in a scenario where there were not a lot of options - actually I would say no options," said Joao Pedro Ribeiro, of Tendencias Consultancy in Sao Paulo.

"He had to build a candidate; he had to build a politician from scratch. That is what he did with Rousseff, he exposed her, and he put her in the media."

"That doesn't mean she was his choice because of some specific political strength, there were no other options inside the Workers' Party", said Mr Ribeiro.

It is clear that President Lula, who cannot stand for a third consecutive term, intends to use all his influence and his enormous popularity to ensure that his chief of staff is elected to take his place in the presidential office, the Planalto.

"We do expect Rousseff to clearly connect her image to Lula as being someone who will continue the government's strategy of the past eight years, while Serra tries to show that he is a more capable manager," said Mr Ribeiro.

Jose Serra
Jose Serra has been a fixture in Brazilian national politics for years

Brazil's economy has been doing relatively well in recent years, with the country one of the last to enter recession due to the economic crisis, and one of the first to leave it. Growth of around 5% is expected this year.

Undoubtedly the approach of both the main candidates towards this issue will receive a lot of attention.

"We don't believe that either of them could break away strongly from what the government has being doing in economic terms, over the last eight years," said Mr Ribeiro.

"She seems to be someone who is more convinced that a bigger government is better for the economy and the country.

"Rousseff would probably be more inclined to keep state-owned companies and keep them stronger than Serra."

But Mr Ribeiro does not see a big change in direction and economic policy if Ms Rousseff wins in October.

Dilma Rousseff, 62, was born in Belo Horizonte in the state of Minas Gerais.

Her mother was Brazilian, while her father, a Bulgarian immigrant, was a lawyer and entrepreneur.

In comparison with President Lula, she enjoyed a comfortable middle class childhood.

As a student she became involved in left-wing politics and played an active part in the resistance to Brazil's military dictatorship which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

Her exact role is clouded in some mystery. Although she was reportedly trained in how to use weapons, she has said she was never actively involved in any armed confrontation with the police or army.

Time in jail

In 1970 she was captured and tortured, including being subjected to electric shocks, for 22 days, and in total she was jailed for almost three years.

"After being beaten, I was thrown naked into a toilet filthy with urine and faeces," Ms Rousseff later told the magazine Marie Claire.

"I used to shiver with the cold until another session of torture would start again."

A qualified economist, she was appointed by President Lula as his first energy minister and later became his chief of staff.

The president is said to credit Ms Rousseff with helping to restore stability to an administration that was hit by scandal, although she has been involved in some controversies of her own.

With the government under pressure over its expenses, her office was accused in 2008 of compiling information about the finances of the previous president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso - the so-called dossier row - a claim she vigorously denied.

A battle with cancer in the last year raised questions about her possible candidacy, but Ms Rousseff says she is fully recovered.

There are still unpredictable elements in the election that lies ahead, such as the potential impact of Ciro Gomes of the Brazilian Socialist Party who has run for the presidency in the past and may stand again.

Environmental groups will be hoping that the presence of former Environment Minister, Marina Silva, as a candidate for the Green Party, will push their concerns to the fore.

But perhaps the greatest impact will come down to the role and influence of the outgoing Brazilian leader.

President Lula, having used his dominant position to get his candidate in place, seems certain to exploit all his formidable political skills to ensure that this was not a wasted effort.

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