By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – According to the recent opinion polls, Dilma Rousseff, the candidate of Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party), now appears closer than ever to becoming Brazil’s next president. In the first of three profiles of the leading contenders, The Rio Times looks at her path from imprisoned political activist to the very cusp of the presidency.
As President Lula’s protégée, former Energy Minister and Chief of Staff, Dilma, 62, started out with little promise as a potential presidential candidate two years ago, but has slowly worked her way up to forty percent voter support today.
Lula, who himself enjoys a 75 percent approval rating, has thrown his full support behind Dilma, vocally championing and actively campaigning in order to assure his supporters that she will be his true successor.
Unlike the current president, who comes from a poor, working-class background, Dilma was born into an upper-middle class family in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, and enjoyed a privileged childhood and education.
Her interest in literature, with the influence of her Bulgarian immigrant father who introduced her to the classical works of prominent writers such as Emile Zola and Dostoevsky, detailing the living conditions of workers, has had a profound effect on her world view. After the coup of 1964, she joined the opposition against the military government, and gradually became more active, favoring open resistance.
Soon after, however, her activities drove her underground; she moved and changed her name a number of times, until she was finally caught and arrested in 1970, and imprisoned for three years where, according to Agencia Brasil, she was also tortured.
Upon her release, Dilma moved to Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, obtained a degree in economics, and again became active in politics, helping found the Partido Democrático Trabalhista (PDT, Democratic Labor Party) in 1979.
She was appointed as the Secretary of Energy and Communication for two consecutive terms in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, before joining a group that abandoned the PDT in order to join the PT in 2001.
Since Lula’s election as the country’s president in 2002, Dilma has taken key roles in his administration, in her own words acting as “his right, as well as his left arm in the process of turning Brazil into a different country – into a country that grows, distributes its wealth, and in which the people, after many years, have the possibility to move up in life.”
Now running for election for the first time, and with the President’s full weight behind her, Dilma has faced questions and doubts regarding her readiness to take on the challenge of leading a country on her own, to which she has responded by referring to her decades of experience on both, the state and federal levels, her knowledge of the machinery of Brazil, as well as its politics and governmental issues.
Due to the period of prosperity Brazil has been enjoying under President Lula, none of the presidential candidates have been promising large-scale reforms or radical changes, however Dilma, more than any other candidate, is committed to staying on the current track if elected, a wise and popular move to win over a population that has seen unparalleled growth and prosperity in the last decade.
Her campaign relies heavily on associating her name with that of Lula, and establishing herself as his direct successor, thus converting his loyal following into her own supporters, as evidenced as well by Lula’s active participation in her campaign.
This approach so far seems to be working; her principal rivals José Serra and Marina Silva have been maintaining a steady voter support, yet Dilma’s popularity has been continuously rising, currently giving her a hard-to-overcome ten points lead that looks set to herald Brazil’s first female presidency. Whether or not Lula’s much-vaunted charisma can be transferred as well remains to be seen.