In many ways, José Serra, the leading candidate for the opposition PSDB, is the most un-Brazilian of politicians. While his fellow citizens are well-known for their easy-going cordiality, Mr Serra is an intellectually intense and abrasive figure, obsessed by the day-to-day detail of policy.
Even old friends from the political community exiled under military dictatorship find him stiff and hard to deal with, although no one doubts his enormous talent. Now 64, Mr Serra played a big role in the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In a liberal pro-market administration he was well-known as a “developmentalist”, favouring a more active state stance in economic policy. As health minister, he extended basic care and was the architect of a successful anti-Aids policy, confronting the pharmaceutical industry in his efforts to develop generic treatments for HIV.
An unsuccessful candidate in the 2002 election, Mr Serra re-launched his political career by winning the race to become mayor of the city of São Paulo in 2004 and governor of the state of São Paulo two years later.
Aécio Neves, 48, entered political life as secretary to his grandfather, Tancredo Neves, a democratic leader who played a prominent role in the movement that brought down the military government. Initially, a member of Mr Tancredo’s PMDB, Mr Neves then joined the PSDB. He is a popular governor of Minas Gerais and has sought to streamline governance and service delivery in the state. Mr Neves has been skilled at building alliances of various types and Minas Gerais has been a pioneer in the development of partnership with private business in order to develop infrastructure. At the same time, Mr Neves has been iconoclastic in breaking down antagonism that has divided the PSDB from Mr Lula da Silva’s Workers’ party. He is seen, however, as an individualist, refusing, for example, to support his own party’s presidential candidate in the 2006 election.
Within President Lula da Silva’s Workers’ party, Dilma Roussef, the 61-year-old chief of staff, has emerged as a frontrunner. That is mainly because of her reputation as a workaholic and tough manager. Ms Roussef served as energy minister between 2003 and 2005. She has a chequered past. Thirty-eight years ago, Ms Roussef, then in her early 20s, took up arms against Brazil’s military dictatorship, earning particular notoriety by participating in the spectacular robbery of the house of a prominent São Paulo businessman. She was imprisoned for three years and tortured. Ms Roussef was released in 1973 and has been active in a variety of left-wing parties ever since.
Brazilian politicians are notoriously disloyal to their parties. The 51-year-old Ciro Gomes exemplifies that trend. After starting his political life as a member of a pro-military party, he switched to the middle-of-the-road Brazilian Democratic Movement party (PMDB), flirted briefly with the Brazilian Social Democratic party (PSDB), and ran for president as candidate of the ex-communist Popular Socialists (PPS) before arriving in the left-of-centre Socialist party (PSB).
Yet within the coalitions that have backed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s two governments, Mr Gomes has been one of the president’s closest allies.
He is close to the political dynasty that has governed the rapidly growing north-eastern state of Ceará and served as governor there between 1991 and 1999, and is a federal deputy for the state. Charismatic, youthful in appearance and glamorous – in part because of his marriage to Patricia Pillar, a soap-opera star – many see him as the most likely pro-Lula candidate to survive into a second round fight against the front-runner, José Serra. But he is also temperamental, prone to indiscretion and to public losses of temper.