BRASILIA, Brazil — The only question that seems to be left hanging in Brazil's presidential race is the date of Dilma Rousseff's victory party: Oct. 3 or Oct. 31? The polls have consistently reported that Rousseff, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's preferred successor, is hovering around the threshold that she needs to secure a victory Sunday, Oct. 3, in the first round of the country's presidential election. The most recent numbers -- published on Sept. 29 -- put her at 47 percent of the popular vote, right on the boundary of what is required to avoid a runoff. But even if the contest goes to a second round, there seems to be little doubt that Rousseff will eventually prevail.
Rousseff's election would mark a series of firsts for Brazil. Unlike her main rivals for the presidency, the former guerrilla fighter is vying for her first elected office -- a fact that would also set her apart from every one of Brazil's other recent presidents. She would also become the first female head of state of a country whose women have long played a major role in society but are still emerging as a force in politics.
Rousseff would bring a lot to the table. An efficient administrator with an inflammable temper, she has a degree in economics and a wealth of experience in the energy sector, serving as energy minister before becoming Lula's chief of staff. As a new grandmother and a survivor of lymphatic cancer, from which she was recovering during the first months of the campaign, she garners a humane respect among Brazilians that transcends party politics. This biography adds a softness to her hard edges: During the 1960s, Rousseff commanded a cadre of Marxist guerrillas fighting against the military dictatorship of the time and edited a left-wing newspaper -- activities that led to her imprisonment and torture by the ruling regime.
But it's Lula's extraordinary popularity, which has hovered around 80 percent during the past two years, that offers the best explanation for Rousseff's front-runner status. Droves of Brazilian voters have told pollsters that they would elect whomever Lula thought best. Rousseff's standing with the public was in the doldrums in late 2009, when polls had her receiving only 28 percent of the vote. Her star rose, however, as more voters linked her with the president, and Rousseff's campaign adopted a strategy of sunning herself in Lula's glow.
There's more to Lula's current popularity than his avuncular magnetism. Brazil's outgoing president has still lost more presidential elections than he has won -- proving that, under certain conditions, Brazilians are able to resist his charms. But several important socio-economic trends have buoyed Lula's reputation among the electorate. The primary factor has been the country's impressive reduction in poverty, which began before Lula took office and accelerated under his charge. Brazil is now far ahead of the rest of the world in meeting the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.
As for Brazilian women, they have long enjoyed better opportunities than women in the rest of Latin America, and they have a higher average level of schooling than Brazilian men. But so far, women's engagement in national politics has been marginal. Fewer than 10 percent of members of the lower house of Brazil's Congress are female, despite a law requiring women to make up at least 25 percent of the candidates. Political parties say that few women seem to want to run for office.
Rousseff, along with Marina Silva, the third-place candidate, looks set to change all that, and rather than being hampered by her gender, she might even be helped by it. In a survey published last week, the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Brazilians think it would generally be a good idea to have a female president, compared with 33 percent of U.S. citizens who were asked this question in 2007.
On the campaign trail, however, Rousseff's gender has generally been referenced only obliquely, for reasons that have more to do with ideology than with any deep-seated suspicion of women in politics. "Women voters in Brazil tend to be more conservative. This was a fact for President Lula," says Amaury de Souza, a Rio de Janeiro-based senior researcher at the Institute for Economic, Social, and Political Studies in Sao Paulo.
Still, Rousseff has made inroads. Her rise in the polls was accompanied by a decline in women's support for her main rival, Sao Paulo Governor José Serra. In May, 33 percent of women said they would vote for Rousseff, compared with 38 percent who supported Serra. But by the end of July, the two candidates were even, with 35 percent of female votes each.
Assuming Rousseff does eventually win the election, the vagaries of Brazil's political system will force her to deviate from Lula's playbook. Since 1994, Brazil's largest party, the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) has refrained from nominating a presidential candidate from within its own ranks, preferring instead to wield power as a kingmaker. It has backed Lula's Worker's Party (PT) since 2002, and in 2007 it entered into a more formal alliance with the ruling party.
Rousseff, should she win, will probably find that an increasingly unified PMDB expects a greater say in policymaking. Its more market-friendly outlook appears set to grate against her economic instincts, which some analysts say place her to the left of Lula. De Souza, for one, reckons that the resulting tension could lead to the PMDB fielding its own candidate in the next presidential election. "In the past, the PMDB's negotiation with the other parties was pork and patronage. But now it sees that it can have a much enlarged role in Brazilian politics," he explains.
And that's not the only field where Lula's successor will have to chart her own path. Lula's forays into international affairs left much to be desired: He loved the international limelight, but picked his allies, and often his words, poorly. The president's casual likenings of the losers in Iran's fraudulent 2009 election to soccer fans who cannot accept their team's defeat, and of hunger-striking Cuban dissidents to common criminals, stand out as gaffes that might have sunk the more earnest Rousseff. (Lula has also called Hugo Chávez "the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years.")
The more important question remains whether Lula's ecumenical approach to foreign policy can survive his departure from office. "This friends-with-all approach was achievable with Lula at the helm because his charisma could shoulder the criticisms that came with it," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Perhaps a victorious Rousseff will use foreign affairs to strike out on her own -- by, for instance, taking a harder line on Iran or distancing herself from Latin America's more radical leftist leaders. She has said little about the world beyond Brazil's borders, however. Most likely, she'd have to focus on her greatest challenge: filling Lula's giant shoes at home.