In Brazil, ‘President’ Is Forever

Dilma Rousseff (left), impeached president of Brazil, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Lula's wife, Marisa Leticia, wave to supporters at a campaign rally. MAURICIO LIMA

Brazil being Brazil, a land where the next campaign begins the nanosecond the last one ends, speculation is already rife following the election of Dilma Rousseff. Complicating the picture is the fact that in Brazil there is no such thing as an ex-president. Though the national Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive mandates, nothing stops a pol bitten by destiny from sitting it out for four years or so and then trying again. And again, and again. Once a president, always a presidential hopeful. And since there is always the prospect of an afterlife in politics, for many former leaders there is no real life but politics.

Of the four living former Brazilian presidents, three—José Sarney, Itamar Franco, and Fernando Collor de Mello—will serve in the Senate next year, and all three nurse thoughts, if not of a presidential comeback, then at least of becoming a kingmaker. True, the late João Baptista Figueiredo, the last and most dour of five generals who governed from 1964 to 1985, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, volleyed that he wanted only to be forgotten. But that is not Lula’s cup of matte.

Lula has yet to announce his retirement plans, but don’t expect the most popular—and successful—politician Brazil has seen in two generations to climb into his pajamas and putter in the garden. For starters, President-elect Rousseff is largely viewed as Lula’s creation, playing Eliza Doolittle to his Professor Higgins. Just a year ago, after all, the former Marxist guerrilla turned technocrat was another face in the Brazilian wonkosphere, at home behind a laptop and a pie chart and practically unknown to this country of 193 million. Remarkably, she never once ran for political office before her presidential bid.

But after a year of being squired around by Lula, Brazil’s self-styled everyman, who is never better than when he’s surfing the crowds, Rousseff’s candidacy was born. After a grueling bout of chemotherapy for lymphatic cancer last year, she reinvented herself, swapped her Coke-bottle glasses for contacts, got a face-lift, flattened her brow with Botox, swept back her hair, and turned in her frumpy pantsuits for stylish designer duds. She also learned to smile, pose for snapshots with voters, and gab herself hoarse, essential survival skills on a continent-size campaign trail.

The makeover astonished allies and foes alike, and Rousseff readily acknowledged the debt in her victory speech, nearly choking on emotion as she thanked her political maker and his “immense wisdom.” It won’t hurt that a wave of allies will follow her into power, including 17 of 27 state governors, three of every five senators, and a comfortable majority in the Congress, a power bloc that owes more to Lula’s coattails than to hers. Whether Rousseff will also inherit Lula’s ability to whip the traditionally fractious legislature is another question. Then again, that may not matter. “I know that a leader like Lula will never be far from the people and every one of us,” Rousseff said with feeling near the end of her speech.

A strong-willed woman, who held up under torture during the Brazilian dictatorship, Rousseff is no political pushover. But running Latin America’s largest nation is not for novices. Just maybe, Lula will step aside and let his protégée learn government as she goes. But with one eye on Rousseff and the other on the 2014 election, when Lula will be eligible to run for office again, Brazil’s ex-president is more likely to be “ex” in name only.