Brazil's president Rousseff signals shift to a more sober style after charismatic Lula


The new president favours a hands-on approach to governing that plays to her personal strengths

PRESIDENT DILMA Rousseff celebrates 100 days in office tomorrow with polls showing Brazilians rate the start of her term the best by any president since the country’s return to democracy in 1989.

In contrast to the high profile of her charismatic predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, his protégée Rousseff has used her first months in power to signal a switch to a more discreet governing style greatly at odds with the personal intensity of the Lula presidency.

She has largely forsaken the limelight in which Lula basked, favouring instead a hands-on approach to governing that analysts say plays to her personal strengths.

“Lula was a political animal but he was not an enthusiastic administrator. Dilma is an administrator who knows she will never have his charisma, so she speaks less to the media and her agenda is more discreet while she focuses on greater control over policy,” said André Pereira César of the CAC political consultancy in Brasilia.

In her first months in power the local media has reported approvingly that President Dilma has demanded that her ministers remain the full week in the capital rather than taking Fridays off to return early to their home states, and has insisted that anyone they appoint to important state jobs be technically qualified for the job, not always a consideration in the past.

“The work rate has upped in Brasilia. As president she demands more of her ministers and even her reputation for angering quickly works in her favour – now ministers have to work harder in order to avoid annoying the president,” said Pereira.

As well as changes in tone, there have also been some eye-catching changes in policy from the Lula era. Rousseff’s first major decision on taking power was to make significant cuts in the federal budget in an attempt to rein in rising inflation. This is running well ahead of the central bank’s target despite interest rates of 11.75 per cent.

Government spending in the last two years of Lula’s administration had increased dramatically as a fiscal stimulus to help the economy survive the financial crash morphed into a government giveaway before last October’s elections. The resulting boom has run into supply bottlenecks, pushing up prices.

Now Rousseff must balance the need to dampen down the economic euphoria with the need to avoid hindering investments in badly needed infrastructure, especially with the approach of the World Cup in 2014, with the country’s airports in particular unprepared for the expected surge in foreign visitors.

Rousseff passed her first major legislative test when she ensured the government’s potentially fractious base in congress voted for her plan to limit this year’s increase in the minimum wage, despite demands by pro- government unions for a bigger raise.

On the foreign front she has repositioned her administration from that of her predecessor by placing more emphasis on human rights.

She has sought to distance herself from the close ties established between Lula and Iran and last month Brazil voted to appoint a UN special investigator into the human rights record of the regime in Tehran.

But despite the assured start there will be greater challenges ahead.

No one ever questioned Rousseff’s capabilities as an administrator but she has yet to be tested by a major political crisis. Such a crisis could expose a weak personal base in her Workers’ Party.

Several of the party’s leading lights resented Lula’s selection of Rousseff as its presidential candidate ahead of what they saw as their prior claims.

She is also enjoying a honeymoon with her main coalition partner, the Democratic Movement of Brazil, which loyally voted for her minimum wage raise. But the party has a notorious appetite for jobs in the bureaucracy, placing party hacks in state jobs in return for congressional support. This could hinder attempts to run a more technocratic, professional government.

The Democratic Movement can also be an embarrassing partner, as Lula found out, with its leadership rarely far from involvement in the corruption scandals that frequently erupt in the media.

The one discordant note struck this week was the revelation that Rousseff’s vice-president, the Democratic Movement’s Michel Temer, is under investigation by the supreme court over his alleged involvement in corruption in the country’s biggest port.