Brazil's Lula considers next steps

Brazil voters elected Dilma Rousseff in hopes of extending the policies of popular outgoing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After handing over the sash of office Jan. 1, what will Lula do next?

Ricardo Stuckert/Brazil's Presidency/AP
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (l.) shakes hands with Brazil's President-elect Dilma Rousseff after a meeting at the Planalto palace in Brasilia, Brazil, on Nov. 3.
Eraldo Perez/AP
A supporter of Brazil’s president elect, Dilma Rousseff, applauds during a victory rally for her. She is her nation’s first woman president.

Now that Dilma Rousseff has been elected as Brazil's new president, the big question in voters' minds is not only what she will do in her four-year term but what will become of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

He has been the face of a rising Brazil for the past decade, emerging as one of the most popular presidents in history. Sensible economic policies, a commodities boom that brought in huge amounts of foreign currency, and an assistance program that lifted millions out of poverty have translated into approval ratings hovering at 80 percent today. In two terms in office, Mr. da Silva, known as Lula, carved a role for himself in diplomatic circles as Brazil became an important player in trade and climate-change talks.

In fact, Ms. Rousseff's victory was easy because Brazilians back Lula's policies and want them to continue. For many it is hard to imagine a political landscape without him in the foreground. As bestselling newsmagazine Veja asked in a cover story: 'He'll leave the Presidency. But will the presidency leave him?'

Everyone in Brazil wants to know: What will Lula do next? "As a political fact, it's causing great curiosity," says Ricardo Caldas, a political scientist at the University of Brasília.

A looming presence

Lula's presence threatens to loom over Rousseff's presidency, just as his charisma has overshadowed all other political players over the last eight years – something that won't change overnight, analysts say. He will continue to wield considerable influence inside the government and the Workers' Party (PT).

"[Dilma] has little control over the PT, and Lula is the principal leader of the party," says Ricardo Ribeiro, a political analyst at MCM Political Consultants in São Paulo, Brazil. "If Lula decides he wants one thing and Dilma wants another, she can't challenge him. If there is a disagreement, Lula will have the final word."

Rousseff was elected with 56 percent of the vote in the Oct. 31 runoff election, thanks to the support of Lula, who handpicked her as his successor. It is support that many say Rousseff could not have done without since she had never before run for political office and she has no political base, having only joined the PT in 2001. She lacks Lula's charm and magnetism. Though respected for her courage, intellect, and administrative talents, she is also seen as authoritarian and gruff.


Lula put her in charge of his most important projects during his second mandate, and both supporters and rivals say they believe her government will not differ substantially from Lula's. If there is a difference it will be in style, experts say.

"I think she is going to be involved a lot more than Lula was involved," says David Fleischer, the author of Brazil Focus, a weekly journal of politics. "Lula had people stand in for him, and Dilma was like [his] prime minister or president adjunct. She is known as a manager."

In her victory speech, Rousseff said her main priorities are helping the less well-off and eradicating absolute poverty. She underlined that her government would be more about continuity than change, a theme that voters seem to support. But to critics, Lula ignored longstanding promises to pass much-needed fiscal, labor, union, and political reforms, and he did little to improve the nation's education system. Violent crime is falling but is still high, corruption remains a blight, and Brazilians pay high tax rates for what they say are inadequate services.

Brazil will host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, and it desperately needs to add infrastructure to prepare the country for those events, as well as to develop the huge reserves of oil recently found offshore.

Rousseff's ability to make tough choices to tackle those issues, with or without Lula taking a leading role, remains to be seen.

Lula's next steps: Africa?

How she goes about it could also be crucial in deciding Lula's next step. It is hard to know what the president plans once he hands over the sash of office on Jan. 1.

He told at least one reporter he wants to work to help Africa. He told others he would like to head an international agency. He has consistently suggested his focus will be on helping fight poverty worldwide. He also said his main wish is to take time off and relax, but then he told a rally he would not hesitate to call Rousseff with suggestions if the going gets tough. He also repeatedly lambasted his predecessor for offering opinions on his own government and pointedly said ex-presidents should be seen and not heard.

No matter what kind of ex-president he becomes, many believe Lula will try his hand at another presidency in the next cycle. "I could see him coming back if the country calls him back," says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "He likes to be the center of attention. It is going to be tempting four years from now if conditions are right."

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