By Jeferson Ribeiro and Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA, Oct 5 (Reuters) - Two of Brazil's most popularopposition leaders joined forces on Saturday in an unexpectedalliance that shakes up next year's election and could pose amajor challenge to President Dilma Rousseff at a time when theeconomy is sputtering.
Marina Silva, a colorful former environment minister who wasrunning second in polls for next year's presidential vote, saidshe was setting aside her own presidential ambitions to join thecenter-left PSB Party and support its candidate, Pernambucostate Governor Eduardo Campos.
Their alliance, which came together only in the past 24hours and was a total shock to Brazil's political establishment,instantly creates a business-friendly alternative to Rousseffwith nationwide organization, robust financing from donors, andpopularity among rich and poor voters alike.
Campos had been running fourth in most polls, with onlysingle-digit support. But with Silva's endorsement, and possiblyher as his running mate, he now seems well-positioned to cash inon growing discontent among the business elite with Brazil'sstagnant economy, as well as popular unrest following a wave ofanti-government street protests in June.
"This isn't more of the same. This is what's new ... what'ssurprising," a smiling Silva told a packed news conference inBrasilia, standing by Campos' side.
Asked if the alliance improves his chances of becomingpresident, a confident Campos replied: "I don't think anybodyhere has any doubt about that."
Rousseff, a pragmatic leftist, will not be easy to unseat.While she has not officially announced her candidacy forre-election in 2014, she currently leads polls by a healthymargin and has seen her popularity bounce back recently aftertaking a huge hit during the protests.
Rousseff retains broad support among Brazil's poor, thanksto unemployment near record lows and her party's success inreducing poverty over the past decade. She also has the backingof former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who remainsBrazil's most popular politician.
Marina Silva, who grew up poor in the Amazon and served asenvironment minister under Lula, is very popular among youngerBrazilians, environmentally conscious voters and evangelicalChristians. She placed a strong third in the 2010 presidentialelection on the Green Party ticket, and had been rising in pollssince the June protests.
However, her bid to create a new political party failed thisweek because of legal technicalities, prompting her to turn tothe PSB, the acronym for the Brazilian Socialist Party.
The PSB offers Silva an organized, well-funded party that isrelatively distanced from the corruption accusations that haveplagued other Brazilian political groups, including Rousseff'sWorkers' Party, in recent years.
Some senior politicians have said privately that Silva, whohas suffered over the years from health problems includinghepatitis, seemed more comfortable in a "figurehead" role thatwould allow her to pursue her passions, including environmentalissues, without worrying about other concerns like the economy.
"ONLY GOD KNEW"
The alliance could prove difficult to maintain, however.Silva has quit two other parties following disputes overideology and organization in the last four years, and it isunclear how Campos' pro-business agenda will square over timewith Silva's emphasis on the environment and sustainable growth.
Campos is well-regarded by business leaders, and his partywas part of Rousseff's governing coalition until earlier thisyear. He broke ranks after criticizing her for excessiveintervention in Brazil's economy, which has struggled with slowgrowth since Rousseff took office in early 2011.
The new duo also poses a challenge to the Brazilian SocialDemocratic Party (PSDB), which governed Brazil from 1995-2002and until Saturday was seen as the country's strongestopposition force. Its likely candidate, Senator Aecio Neves, hasslid backwards in some polls recently and has been stuck inthird place.
"Today, we're breaking a false polarization that needs to bebroken in Brazilian politics," Campos said. Referencing theprotests earlier this year, he said "whoever understood whathappened in June will understand what's happening here today."
Beto Albuquerque, the PSB's leader in the house of deputies,told reporters that Silva had "discussed the possibility" ofbeing the vice presidential candidate on Campos' ticket.
Paulo Sotero, head of the Brazil Institute at the WilsonCenter in Washington, said the alliance was widely seen as a"masterstroke" by Campos that effectively turns next year'selection upside-down.
Silva gives Campos "legitimacy among leftist andcenter-leftist voters" and creates a strong nationwide ticket,since Campos is strong in Brazil's northeast and Silva is mostpopular in the relatively wealthy south and southeast, Soterosaid.
Until Saturday, most political observers had expected Silvato join a smaller party, and virtually no one had predicted analliance with Campos.
Silva said joining the PSB had been one of her backup plansif her own party failed, but acknowledged the secret was closelykept. "Only God knew about this," she said.
- Politics & Government
- Dilma Rousseff
- Marina Silva