March 12, 2018 / 1:48 PM / 9 months ago

Meirelles gains edge on Temer as Brazil ruling party eyes 2018 race: sources

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Support for a presidential run by Brazil Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles is gaining strength within the country’s largest party and he could be nominated over President Michel Temer for the October presidential race, party officials said.

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles listens to Rio de Janeiro's Mayor Marcelo Crivella (not pictured) during a meeting in Brasilia, Brazil February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Meirelles has until April 7 to decide whether to join Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) party and resign as minister to run for president, a tricky decision because the ruling party could end up picking Temer if his numbers improve.

“Meirelles wants to join our party and we are still studying his request, but we cannot guarantee that he will be the candidate,” a senior MDB official said, asking that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“Meirelles is courting the party and the party is courting him,” said an MDB strategist, who also requested anonymity. “The rank and file do not want Temer. His candidacy will not fly.”

Both Temer and Meirelles received about 1 percent of voter intentions in a recent Datafolha poll. Still, the ruling party is set on having its own presidential candidate, even if a stronger centrist candidate such as Sao Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party defends its platform of market-friendly reforms and fiscal austerity.

With Brazil’s most popular politician, leftist former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, likely barred from running due to a corruption conviction, the Oct. 7 election is wide open, with many potential candidates still polling in single digits.

Temer’s closest political allies in the Cabinet are the main backers of his nomination, but the growing feeling in the party is that Meirelles would make a better candidate, one of the party sources said.

A rejection rate of more than 70 percent in polls is Temer’s biggest problem and is seen as unsurmountable, the person said.

Shouts of “Out with Temer” were common at Carnival parades last month among Brazilians who believe the former vice president backed the impeachment of leftist Dilma Rousseff in 2016 to take over and shield himself from corruption probes.

The president’s recent decision to drop an unpopular plan to overhaul Brazil’s generous social security system was not able to help his low single-digit approval rating.

Temer, 77, also runs the risk of getting further entangled in an ongoing corruption probe that led a Supreme Court justice to authorize investigators to look into his bank accounts.

Meirelles, 72, a former chairman of BankBoston, has not been snared by the graft scandals consuming Brasilia. The main obstacle to his candidacy is the lack of a party to support him, because his Social Democratic Party (PSD) plans to back Alckmin.

“Meirelles wants to be president. He will leave the PSD for the MDB. He feels it’s now or never. He has the health and the energy,” said a person with knowledge of his plans.

The finance minister’s substantial personal fortune from his years in the private sector may help the case for his candidacy, as new limits on corporate funding for political campaigns have sent parties scrambling for cash.

Meirelles has said he will make his decision at the last minute and would not settle for being vice presidential candidate on someone else’s ticket.

Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassú and Ricardo Brito; Editing by Jonathan Oatis

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