Ex-Banker in Bid for President Yet to Win Over Brazil Public

(Bloomberg) -- Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles prompted snickering in Brazil’s political establishment when he first mused openly about his presidential ambitions last year. Now, that’s stopped.

Meirelles, who polls at only 1 percent of voter intention, himself was full of doubt as whether to run, according to a close aide. But President Michel Temer early last month held out the possibility he could run for the MDB party, the biggest player in Brazilian politics. Since then, the finance minister has become a fixture on Brazil’s airwaves. In a flurry of local radio phone ins, public events and TV interviews, the 72-year old former Wall Street banker has been busily introducing himself to the public.

Ex-Banker in Bid for President Yet to Win Over Brazil Public

From a market perspective, Meirelles definitely has major plus points. As finance minister, he played a key role in dragging the country out of its worst recession on record. His eight years as president of Brazil’s central bank also do no harm to his CV. His considerable personal wealth could prove extremely handy in an election campaign in which corporate campaign donations have been banned. But even allies say he’s politically inexperienced and lacks a popular touch. 

He currently has no party to back him. Though Temer had indicated his support, it’s not clear the rest of the MDB would follow suit. Meirelles would also have to champion Temer’s legacy, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the talks. Given the low approval ratings of the current administration, that may not prove a popular pitch.

"Of all candidates, Meirelles would be the market favorite," said Ricardo Ribeiro, a political analyst at MCM consultancy. "But there are doubts as to his electoral competitiveness."

In emailed comments to Bloomberg, the finance minister said he would take a decision on whether to run by the legal deadline of April 7. Until then, he wrote, he was concentrating on his work to boost economic growth and employment. Over the weekend, Meirelles posted on Twitter a biographical video clip along the lines of "meet your candidate." Only God knows the future but Meirelles wants to continue working for the good of the country, the commentator says in the clip.

Reformist Candidate

At stake is the continuity of the type of market-friendly reforms that Latin America’s largest nation has undertaken over the past two years after decades of heavy government intervention. In a wide field of potential candidates, Meirelles would push hardest for reforms such as capping ballooning pension outlays or granting central bank autonomy.

With a speaking style befitting a professional technocrat rather than an inspirational leader, Meirelles faces an uphill battle. There’s also the challenge of finding a party to give him both the structure for a nationwide campaign and the much-coveted TV time granted them by law. Both Temer’s MDB party and his own current home -- the government-allied Social Democratic Party, or PSD -- are divided in their support for him.

Legislators in both parties told Bloomberg they felt Meirelles lacked people skills and charm, that he was out of touch with common folk and focused too much on macroeconomic issues. Even with free beer and finger food at a recent event in Brasilia for next generation mayors, Meirelles was unable to attract more than two dozen spectators.

"We had agreed for him to visit the regions, go out and meet the people, but he didn’t," said senior PSD lawmaker Marcos Montes. "If he speaks in Washington and New York, he can also do so in Cuiaba," he said, in reference to the capital of the center-west state of Mato Grosso, in Brazil’s agricultural heartland.

Clock Ticking

But he’s running out of time. While candidates need to choose their party by next month, parties don’t have to decide until August who they want to send into the race, meaning Meirelles could make his pick only to find himself stranded.

Brazilian law requires candidates holding executive office to stand down six months before elections. At present, Meirelles is more likely than not to step down in April, according to three people close to him.

On Friday the former global president of BankBoston said he had personally commissioned public opinion surveys to better gauge his election prospects.

"From there, I’ll take them to political leaders to see to what extent we can build a solid and robust campaign."

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