Slowly but surely, the president is making her mark on the government
Feb 18th 2012 | SÃO PAULO | from the print edition
DURING her first year as Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff was careful not to make changes so big that they might be seen as a rebuke to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and patron. She waited to replace the pork-barrel ministers she inherited from him until corruption charges against them became overwhelming, and implemented only limited reforms. Many pundits expected that in 2012 she would take advantage of the quiet period between Christmas and Carnival in February to be more ambitious—only to be disappointed by yet more incrementalism.
Yet even as the president has eschewed bold gestures, she has progressively emerged from Lula’s shadow to recast the Brazilian state in her own likeness. A year into her term, Ms Rousseff’s administration is firmer in its principles, more technocratic, more personally loyal, and far more female than was Lula’s. It remains to be seen whether those changes will make her more able than Lula was to push through the structural reforms Brazil needs.
Ms Rousseff owed her electoral victory in 2010 entirely to Lula, who tapped her as his successor. In turn, he owed his popularity to Brazil’s rapid economic growth in his second term and to social programmes that helped to reduce poverty and inequality. However, Lula was a consummate dealmaker and pragmatist, who, like many Brazilian presidents, bought loyalty by doling out government jobs and pork. Most of the economic reforms that underlay the growth during his presidency were the work of his predecessor.
After taking office, Ms Rousseff kept many of Lula’s ministers in place rather than putting her own people in charge. She has since dismissed seven who faced claims of graft, often after defending them at first. Most were succeeded by her personal choices, but pragmatism sometimes prevailed. Mário Negromonte, booted out of the cities ministry earlier this month, was replaced by his party’s boss, Aguinaldo Ribeiro, who was already facing allegations of corruption as he was sworn in.
During Ms Rousseff’s first year only one big reform, which released the government from some constitutional spending obligations, made it through Congress. Getting anything done in Brasília is a slow business, requiring tortuous negotiations with coalition partners. Her freedom of manoeuvre was further limited by her inexperience and political debts to the allies who helped get her elected.
But Ms Rousseff’s presidency cannot be written off yet: a strong case can be made that she is laying the groundwork for a more ambitious agenda. Many of her appointments would have seemed out of place under Lula. Eleonora Menicucci, the new minister of women’s affairs, is a professor of public health who has been close to the president since they shared a jail cell during Brazil’s dictatorship. Ms Rousseff also named Marco Antonio Raupp, a respected physicist, as science minister when his predecessor switched jobs.
Her appointment of Maria das Graças Foster to the top job at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil firm, is particularly striking. An engineer who has worked for Petrobras for 31 years, Ms Foster expressed her “gratitude and unconditional loyalty” to Ms Rousseff when she moved up on February 13th. That may not have suited minority shareholders, but her experience more than compensated. Petrobras’s share price rose when her name was announced.
With the reshuffle behind her, Ms Rousseff will now push on with her programme. Though she has had little luck in Congress so far, she has proposed pension reform, rules to stop deforestation, and a deal on dividing the proceeds from offshore oil between states and the federal government. And she is haranguing her cabinet on the use of performance targets and the importance of decent public services for voters on moderate incomes.
Brazil has so far weathered the global economic storm fairly well. After hectic growth in 2010, the economy is thought to have grown by 3% last year, owing to a third-quarter slowdown. An overvalued currency means exporters will struggle. But interest-rate cuts should rekindle domestic demand. Economists predict expansion of 3-4% this year.
Meanwhile, recent polls put Ms Rousseff’s approval rating at 59%, a ten-point rise since the middle of last year. That could embolden her to cull her unwieldy coalition. Seven parties are represented in the cabinet, and the opposition has a mere 91 representatives out of 513 in the lower house. Divesting herself of her most troublesome nominal allies would help to strengthen the president while reminding the rest who is boss.