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The challenges of picking the right predecessor, Brazil style

If one of the secrets to success in any job is choosing the right predecessor, then Dilma Rousseff may be starting out with one strike against her.

Her current boss and political champion Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva could well be the toughest act to follow anywhere in the world. Despite the efforts of some commentators to take him down a notch or two (much like young guns in the old American west who used to try to boost their reputations by going after the fastest gun in town), Brazil's charismatic president has done a remarkable job. Confounding -- and consigning to the trash heap of history -- old distinctions between left and right, Lula has overseen an economic boom, major social reforms and the elevation of Brazil's standing to the top ranks of nations in the world. (See the excellent story in today's Latin Business Chronicle ... rapidly becoming required reading for anyone interested in Latin America ... summarizing Brazil's recent economic accomplishments. It's pretty dazzling stuff.)

The question is: What's a girl to do? Dilma, who almost certainly will become Brazil's first woman president -- despite a recent slight slip in the polls due to a scandal that doesn't in any way implicate; her one of those curiously timed dust ups that happen to come to light in the weeks before an election -- is going to inherit a country with very high expectations. Some critics expect that absent Lula's extraordinary gifts that she will falter. But read her story and you discover an exceptionally accomplished, tough as nails, politically canny, professional manager who will come to office much better prepared and equipped than some other leaders who have taken over major powers recently.

In fact, given that a centerpiece of her tenure will be the efforts to tap the enormous oil reserves off Brazil's shores -- thus making Brazil a major petropowerhouse -- her background as former energy minister is ideal. The fact that in that capacity she chaired Petrobras, the state's oil giant that recently completed a massive financing that made it the fourth most highly capitalized company in the world, gives her much more business understanding than many political leaders ... even if her views on the national responsibilities of that company make some market purists uncomfortable.

It is in fact an interesting footnote that should Dilma win she will join Dmitry Medvedev as the second BRIC head of state to have run her national oil company. It's a fact made more resonant when seen in light of the fact that one of the leading candidates to take a top Chinese leadership role come that country's next transition is a former energy engineer. What do the BRICs know that we don't?

There is another Medvedev comparison that also arises: the question of how do you deal with a powerful predecessor who won't go away? Will Dilma be seen as a puppet of an active Lula as Medvedev was of Putin?  Or will she strain at such expectations as Medvedev has? Most who know Dilma say she is unlikely to be anyone's puppet. But she will likely want to turn regularly to Lula. That suggests that a better model for the relationship may be found not in Moscow but in Singapore where Lee Kwan Yew, the father of that state, has maintained a role as Minister Mentor.

In the United States of course, most analysts look at this through the standard U.S. global filter -- what does it mean for us? On the one hand, the answer may be less than one might think. The United States has lost influence as Brazil has shrewdly and effectively plotted an independent course. (Which is the surest way … as in dating … to really heat up American interest.) This shift has been supported by the fact that today China is both Brazil's top trading partner and leading investor.

The continuing tensions over Brazil's intervention in the Iranian nuclear dispute, and the ill-considered U.S. decision to continue to punish the Brazilians for their unsuccessful but misunderstood initiative won't help. Dilma's Brazil won't change course and indeed should not. With other pressing priorities Dilma is likely to maintain continuity with the experienced and accomplished Amorim team at Itamaraty, a group that despite controversy has expanded to unprecedented levels Brazil's international clout. (If Amorim himself doesn't stay on, the leading candidate for the Foreign Ministry is his extremely accomplished deputy, Antonio Patriota, a thoughtful world class career diplomat.)

So while Brazil's next leader will be up against major challenges, she, surrounded by the accomplished and effective team that has produced so much progress for Brazil over the past eight years, is well positioned to maintain that country's current and impressive momentum.

JEFFERSON BERNARDES/AFP/Getty Images

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