By Silvio Cascione and Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA (Reuters) - For the last 20 years, Brazil's largest political party has not once fielded a presidential candidate, instead content to partner with the eventual winner to retain a share of power. No longer, it appears.
The Brazil Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which for many Brazilians epitomizes a self-serving political class living off pork barrel, is now pushing its own legislative agenda as it gears up to make a run for the presidency in 2018.
PMDB sources told Reuters it is reviewing its policy program and preparing to abandon its 12-year-old alliance with President Dilma Rousseff's left-wing Workers' Party (PT) for the next election.
An umbrella party that was tolerated during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the PMDB has no defined ideology but is broadly more pro-business and socially conservative than the PT.
It is an amorphous agglomeration of regional bosses who often represent contradictory interests and seldom have united behind their own presidential candidate. Instead, they have allied themselves with whoever is in power, be it the PT or the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), which ruled Brazil between 1995 and 2002. Still, the PMDB has great power in Brazil today. It controls both houses of Congress and the vice presidency, with the power to push through or block legislation.
It has several cabinet members in Rousseff's government, including key ministries such as agriculture and energy, and its support has been pivotal for the passage of unpopular austerity measures Brazil has had to adopt to put its finances in order.
PMDB officials say it has hired economists to update its program and overhauled its communications strategy to appeal to younger voters on social media.
"We are paving the way for victory in 2018. We cannot miss the opportunity to make the 50-year dream of our party come true: to elect the country's president," Wellington Moreira Franco, the main architect of the PMDB's renovation plan, told regional party leaders last week to a loud round of applause.
Moreira Franco, a former minister in Rousseff's cabinet, said the PT is in crisis after more than a decade in office, buffeted by a stagnant economy and a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras.
"There is a big power vacuum today," he told Reuters.
FINDING A CANDIDATE
The PMDB will hold a convention in September to revamp its platform before testing the waters in municipal elections in 2016.
It has a strong presence in small towns across much of Brazil, a legacy of military rule when it was the only opposition party that politicians were allowed to join. It is now targeting the big cities, where angry voters have taken to the streets to protest against corruption and bad public services.
The PMDB is also looking for strong presidential candidates.
Only once has Brazil elected a president from its ranks, in 1985 when democracy was restored, but Tancredo Neves died before taking office. His running mate José Sarney, a backer of the military who switched to the PMDB, became its only president to date.
The speaker of the lower chamber of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, an evangelical Christian with a conservative agenda, has denied interest in running in 2018.
But Cunha, who is dubbed Brazil's Frank Underwood by critics who liken him to the unscrupulous protagonist in Netflix's "House of Cards" series, appears to be in campaign mode. He has been making weekly trips across Brazil to speak to local politicians, with stops at hospitals to visit patients.
Another prospect is Rio's telegenic mayor Eduardo Paes, who is counting on hosting a successful Olympic Games next year to boost his profile, though the city's preparations are behind schedule.
Aides to Vice President Michel Temer say he should not be ruled out either, even though he will be 78 years old in 2018. Temer is the party's president but lacks broad appeal.
The candidate could be decided in a national primary, Moreira Franco said.
Cunha has drawn attention by putting the Chamber of Deputies to work at a brisk pace. Controversial themes, such as outsourcing labor and lowering the age at which juvenile offenders can be tried as adults to 16 from 18, have raised his profile among center-right voters.
The strategy has also diverted some attention from the Petrobras scandal, in which Cunha and other PMDB leaders have been implicated. Cunha denies any wrongdoing.
Power struggles could also dash the PMDB presidential dream.
A recent feud between Temer and the head of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, over political appointments in federal agencies highlighted the risk of conflicts arising as the race heats up.
Addressing the regional leaders meeting, Temer said the PMDB has to emerge more united from next year's local elections for a presidential bid to get off the ground.
The party is technologically out of date and does not even know who its 2.5 million supporters are, Moreira Franco said. None of its regional leaders are women, and most are veterans out of touch with social media.
Even if the PMDB fields its own candidate, it could face a strong challenge from the PSDB, the opposition party that almost defeated Rousseff when she narrowly won re-election in October. A weakened PT could also roll out its founder, the still popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
As for its alliance with the PT, the PMDB's new leader in the lower chamber, 28-year-old Leonardo Picciani said it was time to reverse the roles.
"Our party aims to have its own candidate in 2018," he told Reuters. "If the Workers' Party wants to join us with a vice-presidential running mate, they're welcome."
(Editing by Todd Benson and Kieran Murray)