Dilma Rousseff: more than just Lula lite

Brazil's new president is cleaning out corruption

More than just Lula lite

Pedro Ladeira/AFP/Getty Images

Dilma Rousseff is on a roll. After just nine months in office, Brazil’s president has parlayed a string of corruption scandals into a boost in popularity (87 per cent of Brazilians say she is doing an average, good or excellent job). She is quickly shaking off the expectation that she would quietly serve as a placeholder for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a man described by Barack Obama as “the most popular politician on Earth” (but prevented by law from seeking a third consecutive term in office). And when the UN General Assembly opened last week, Rousseff delivered the opening address, the first woman ever to do so.

For most heads of state, losing four ministers and dozens of officials to accusations of corruption in under a year would spell trouble. But Rousseff is making it work for her, appearing to Brazilians to be shaking bad apples from government. The latest is Pedro Novais, 81, who resigned on Sept. 14 as tourism minister after a São Paolo newspaper ran a story alleging he used public money to hire a maid and chauffeur for his wife. In August, more than 30 officials from his ministry resigned over similar accusations. Rousseff has also pushed out her chief of staff and transport and agriculture ministers, all over allegations of graft.

The press in Brazil has tried to paint a picture of a president who is “only putting on a show of cleaning house,” says Matthew Taylor, a political scientist at the University of São Paulo, “without engaging the deeper problems of corruption.” But that image isn’t sticking. “It seems she’s managed to convince the public that she had nothing to do with the worst of the problems,” says Taylor, by “discreetly pointing to the fact that she ‘inherited’ much of her cabinet” from Lula, who took more of a wait-and-see approach to releasing scandal-stained ministers.

Rousseff’s progress is keeping pace with Brazil’s. Stability in the country’s economy and a focused effort to improve social problems are growing the middle class. Though it’s too early to label it a season of change, Brazilians are demanding more accountability from their leaders than they have in the past. On Brazil’s Independence Day in early September, 25,000 demonstrators marched against corruption in the capital Brasília, many of them chanting slogans in support of Rousseff’s heavy hand. More protests are slated for Oct. 12.

Despite her popularity, things aren’t as cosy in Rousseff’s government, a delicate coalition of 10 parties, including the recently ousted Novais’s party, the Democratic Movement Party of Brazil (PMDB). The ministers’ forced exits have added stress to Rousseff’s relations with the PMDB and other parties, which are unhappy that she isn’t as willing as Lula was to look the other way. Traditionally, some parties have traded cabinet appointments or increased funding for their support of the government. “The question I have,” says Taylor, “is how long the PMDB and other parties will be willing to see their nominees unceremoniously shuffled offstage.” So far, Rousseff doesn’t appear to be planning to pass any major reforms through government. She might have a hard time getting the required number of votes out of those coalition parties should she try. But the way things are going for her, she may win them over yet.

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