Brazil's Dilma Rousseff steers a steady course

Dilma Rousseff at Independence Day Parade in Brasilia in 2012 Dilma Rousseff is popular despite a slowdown in Brazil's economic growth

Dilma Rousseff was elected as Brazil's first woman president in October 2010, taking over from the charismatic and popular Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In the two years since then, she has proved a popular leader, despite a very different style to her predecessor.

One August morning, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff summoned three of her ministers to discuss ways to help the country's farmers, suffering from the effects of bad weather.

One of those taking part, Agriculture Minister Mendes Ribeiro, says the president became impatient as the debate wore on.

"She told us: 'You have one hour to solve this problem,' and then left the room.

"She agreed to extend the deadline, but there was no way we would be allowed to fail to work it out," says Mr Ribeiro.

Brazil Direct branding

He describes the president as a "very precise and direct leader".

He adds: "She usually does not like to postpone decisions and never accepts unfinished solutions."

This tough approach is seen as a major feature of her administration, which will be two years old in January.

Last month, a photograph published in the Brazilian press showed the president reading a reply to a hand-written note she had sent to two ministers.

The president's irate message - over a contentious environmental policy - was rather embarrassingly visible on the other side.

She had asked her ministers: "Why are the newspapers saying that there was an agreement in Congress yesterday on the Forest Code and I do not know anything?"

International recognition

Her image as a firm leader, combined with the country's economic stability, have helped to give Ms Rousseff's administration an approval rating of 59%.

That is the highest since 1989, when the country held its first direct elections after two decades of military dictatorship.

Ms Rousseff has also attracted attention abroad.

Start Quote

By travelling less and showing greater concern about managing the country, she soon got the sympathy of the middle class”

End Quote Mauro Paulino Director, Datafolha

In August, Ms Rousseff was pictured on the cover of business magazine Forbes, which rated her as the third most powerful woman in the world after Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ms Rousseff, 64, began her political activism in the 1960s, joining a clandestine left-wing group which organised armed resistance to the country's military dictatorship, although she says she was never involved in any acts of violence.

Arrested by the police, she was tortured for 22 days and then detained for nearly three years.

After the return of democracy, she began a political career and caught the eye of then-President da Silva - popularly known as Lula - who appointed her first as his minister of mines and energy, and later his chief of staff.

Seven years later, he personally chose her to succeed him as the Workers' Party presidential candidate, despite the fact she had never contested an election.

Lula da Silva had developed a high profile on the world stage in his quest to carve out a bigger role for Brazil on the world stage.

Dilma Rousseff with President Barack Obama Ms Rousseff has become a prominent leader on the world stage

Ms Rousseff, by contrast, is seen as a low-key politician, more focused on domestic issues.

"By travelling less and showing greater concern about managing the country, she soon got the sympathy of the middle class, something that Lula took much longer to achieve," says Mauro Paulino, director of the Datafolha research institute.

Her administration has had a tougher time on the economic front, however.

In 2011, Brazil's GDP increased by 2.7% and it is expected to grow less than 2% this year, the lowest rate since 2009, and a sharp decline from the 7.5% rise in 2010.

But Ricardo Ismael, professor of social sciences at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, says the economic downturn has not affected her popularity because unemployment - at just below 6% - remains at its lowest level ever.

Start Quote

She checks all the time if we are achieving the goals”

End Quote Tereza Campello Social Development Minister

There has been some support from business leaders. Her role in the Central Bank's decision to cut Brazil's interest rate by five points - until then it had been the highest in the world - was considered crucial.

More recently, she announced measures to increase the role of private investors in the Brazilian economy by privatising roads, railways, ports and airports.

Her rule has, however, been marred by political scandals. The president was forced to fire six ministers for unethical conduct or allegations of corruption, including the transport minister last year.

Some of these ministers were Lula appointees and the changes, according to analysts, allowed the president to build a government better reflecting her character.

However her critics believe she has maintained some of the worst aspects of the previous administration.

President Dilma Rousseff and ex-president Lula at a ceremony in Brasilia in January 2012 Ms Rousseff is accused by some opponents of continuing Lula da Silva's expensive political model

"She kept the political model negotiated by former President Lula, which exhausts the financial power of the Brazilian state," says Senator Alvaro Dias, of the opposition social democratic party, the PSDB.

"It requires public posts to be created for the appointees of political allies.

"As a result of the huge ruling coalition, opposition is limited. We were numerically reduced to be the smallest opposition in Latin America, even smaller than in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela."

Maintaining the broad coalition set up by Lula da Silva has not prevented Ms Rousseff from losing some major disputes in the Parliament.

Tense relationship

A major defeat occurred when Congress approved new rules defining the balance between environmental conservation and agricultural development, known as the Forest Code.

Her tense relationship with Congress, despite the government's majority, has prompted some critics to say that, although a good administrator, Ms Rousseff lacks the political skills to be president.

She has also been heavily criticised for defending the construction of hydro-electric dams in the Amazon rainforest.

According to activists, the dams are both bad for the environment and indigenous communities in the region, while the president believes they are vital part of economic growth.

Boy walking down street in rural Brazil Ms Rousseff has vowed to end extreme poverty by 2014

Last year, she said eradicating extreme poverty by 2014 would be her government's "most determined fight".

According to Social Development Minister Tereza Campello, Ms Rousseff closely follows all the government's programmes to help Brazil's poorest citizens.

"She checks all the time if we are achieving the goals. She has a very good memory, remembers figures mentioned in previous meetings and always carries a laptop to compare data," Ms Campello says.

In a recent meeting with farmers, Ms Rousseff was introduced to a man who had learned to read, received seeds from a government agency, and whose home had been connected to the electric grid.

But when he smiled, the president noted that several teeth in his mouth were missing.

"When he opened his mouth, the president immediately looked at me," recalls Ms Campello. "I got the message - we still needed to make sure he had access to the government's dental programme."

The man might have been happy, but President Rousseff, it seemed, was not.

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