BRASILIA, Brazil — Living in a military dictatorship, a young Dilma Rousseff, seething against the inequities of Brazilian society and the authoritarian government, joined a Marxist guerrilla group with one central objective: to topple the state.
Forty years later, it’s President Rousseff who is being tested by rage: daily protests across hundreds of cities in June, followed by simmering discontent.
The anger over corruption and substandard services is directed at the entire political class, leading to sometimes-violent demonstrations against the governor in Rio de Janeiro and outbursts against politicians in other corners of the country. But on a national level it is Rousseff, 65, who has been most battered by unrest that her center-left government failed to see coming.
That has led to splits in her broad governing coalition and to an intense debate inside her Workers’ Party, where some members are floating the idea of a comeback by Rousseff’s larger-than-life predecessor, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, according to party members and political analysts interviewed here in the capital.
Jorge Bittar, a Workers’ Party congressman, said he believes that Rousseff’s outreach efforts since June have strengthened her position and that she will probably run for a second term next year. But nothing is preordained, he said, particularly if the economy declines and protests pick up again.
If Rousseff’s political fortunes worsen, “we go to Plan B,” he said. “You know what that will be? Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, that he comes back as a candidate.”
Lula, a charismatic political operator who enjoyed a special bond with his countrymen, handpicked Rousseff to succeed him as the Workers’ Party candidate in 2010 as he neared the end of his second four-year term. Rousseff, a details-oriented technocrat who had never held elective office, won easily.
Lula, whose two terms were marked by robust economic growth and a steep fall in poverty levels, has said he has no plans to run again. But his active and very public role in Brazilian politics — he says he is a friend and special adviser to Rousseff — has many here wondering if he could reverse himself at her expense.
In a rare, recent interview with the São Paulo newspaper Folha, Rousseff did little to dampen talk of Lula’s outsize role, which gave the impression to some that she is not fully in charge.
Asked about a movement to bring him back as a presidential candidate, Rousseff said: “I think Lula won’t be back, because he never left.”
Pressed again about Lula’s aspirations, Rousseff answered, “That I don’t know, my dear.”
Rousseff is facing tough questions from Workers’ Party members, among them lawmakers worried that their seats are vulnerable and that the presidency their movement has long held might be in jeopardy.
Adair Rocha, a party founder and an official in Lula’s government who frequently speaks to the former president, said there is a divide between those who want to align themselves with the protesters and those who strongly back Rousseff’s “institutional” response to citizen demands.
Though Lula supports Rousseff as the party’s candidate for 2014, “he’s talking, he’s listening, he’s looking at the coming challenges,” Rocha said.
Rousseff remains the politician to beat, since most of her challengers have failed to capitalize on her recent troubles. But she has fallen fast and far in the polls, underscoring the general malaise in a country that has seen its once go-go economy slow sharply since 2010.
With public support that hovered just below 80 percent when she started her term in 2011, Rousseff’s numbers dipped to a still-strong 57 percent at the start of June. Then came the free fall to a 30 percent approval rating by July.
A Datafolha opinion poll published last week showed a slight rebound. But the government has appeared indecisive while trying to find a formula to ease the discontent ahead of the World Cup soccer championship in several Brazilian cities next summer — venues many believe will be conducive to more protests.
“I think next year the protests will be more intense,” said João Telesforo, 25, who has been demonstrating in Brasilia against the government. “It will be similar to this year, with as many people in the street, but with much more capacity to influence what happens in this country.”
Rousseff, an economist and energy expert who is uncomfortable wading into crowds, appears hamstrung by the lackluster economy and what even politicians in her own governing coalition say is an inability to set a new political agenda.
“She has a style of doing politics that in some ways is like Angela Merkel — it’s a Germanic manner, and this doesn’t work here,” said Oswaldo Munteal, a historian and expert on Brazil’s transformation to democracy. “I don’t see her with an appetite for governing. I see her as a little sad, somewhat disillusioned. She doesn’t seem to have the heart to rule.”
Government aides describe a president determined not only to govern but also to modernize the government. She has promised broad changes and pledged to funnel more money to schools and hospitals, whose shoddy services have generated rage.
Her aides have also urged Rousseff to reach out to people in unscripted settings, such as a series of low-key meetings she has had with Brazilians who participated in the protests.
“She listens more than she talks,” said an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the government. “She is there to take notes.”
In her standard stump speech, Rousseff talks of how natural it is for people to call for “more democracy” in an already vibrant democracy. She also highlights what she calls “extraordinary” accomplishments under Workers’ Party rule, such as popular anti-poverty programs, while asserting that she, too, is supportive of demonstrators’ demands for a better-functioning government.
Her efforts have fallen short with many protesters.
“She truly believes that people who are complaining are complaining on a full belly,” said Gustavo Capela, 27, a lawyer.
Even her allies talk of her failure to connect with ordinary people the way Lula and his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, could.
“With Lula and Fernando Henrique, there was understanding, and people ceded to them,” said Pedro Simon, a senator from the main party allied with Rousseff in her broad coalition. “But Dilma just doesn’t have what it takes.”
Still, not all the news is grim. Unemployment remains low, and her own commitment to clean government is unquestioned.
The president has also emphasized that she is patiently working to resolve Brazil’s problems, as she pointed out to the newspaper Folha when asked if she would be out protesting if she were not president.
“I went to a bunch of marches,” she said, recalling her youth. “After that, you see the world in a different way. You know that protests are very important. But each one of us contributes in the best way he or she can.”
© 2013, The Washington Post