By Marcela Ayres
BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil's Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles has hired social media experts to boost his image ahead of the 2018 election, three sources told Reuters on Wednesday, the strongest sign yet that the former banker is seriously eyeing a run for president.
Meirelles hired analysts linked to the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) think tank to study his social media presence on a daily basis and build a communication plan, said one of the sources. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
They have been working for Meirelles for more than three months, two of the sources said.
The Finance Ministry's press office declined comment on Meirelles behalf.
The finance minister's potential candidacy adds to political uncertainty ahead of a presidential election marked by a strong anti-establishment climate and a lack of clear favorites.
Meirelles, praised by investors for leading a market-friendly agenda of economic reforms, would have to leave his post by April, six months before the election, and could face a wide field of competitive candidates in a first-round vote.
One of the analysts hired by Meirelles works alongside the ministry's official communication team in Brasilia, although the FGV team has not received any public funds for supporting his potential candidacy, two of the sources said.
The team includes Thomas Traumann, a former spokesman for impeached President Dilma Rousseff, according one of the sources and another person familiar with the matter.
Traumann confirmed to Reuters that he had consulted for Meirelles under private contract since 2015, but he did not work for the Finance Ministry. He declined to comment on potential preparations for next year's presidential race.
The Finance Ministry said FGV has offered consultancy on social media to the ministry as part of a 40-year-long initiative of institutional support, without any connection to the 2018 campaign.
A ministry spokeswoman, who asked not to be named in accordance with ministry policy, said it had no relationship with Traumann.
FGV said it had not signed a contract with the Finance Ministry or Meirelles.
Reuters reported late in August, citing a source close to Meirelles, that Meirelles wanted to run for president but knew he would have a strong chance only if the economy improved substantially after two years of recession.
Congressmen from his Social Democratic Party (PSD) last month heard from Meirelles that he felt honored to have his name floated as a potential candidate.
Other potential candidates from within President Michel Temer's fragmented coalition include the governor of Sao Paulo state, Geraldo Alckmin, and Sao Paulo Mayor Joao Doria.
Meirelles opened a Twitter account in June to publicize his actions as minister and has recently left the door open for a potential candidacy, saying he would take a decision on the race by April. About 2 percent of voters have declared their intention to vote for him, according to a recent Datafolha poll.
A civil engineer by training, Meirelles is the former president of BankBoston, which was eventually acquired by Bank of America Corp, and a former president of Brazil's central bank.
(Reporting by Marcela Ayres; Writing by Silvio Cascione; Editing by Brad Haynes)