By Asher Levine
SAO PAULO, Dec 9 (Reuters) - This year has been difficult for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, but it hasn't been much easier for her opposition.
Brazil's PSDB party, the main rival to Rousseff's Workers' Party, failed to capitalize on a turbulent period marked by a sputtering economy and the widespread, often violent street protests against poor public services and corruption that rocked the country in June.
Latin America's largest economy, a one-time market darling after posting a 7.5 percent growth rate in 2010, has slowed sharply under Rousseff as industry struggles with high tax and labor costs, among other issues. Rousseff's popularity had been mostly insulated from the economic headwinds, however, due to her government's focus on expanding popular social programs.
While Rousseff's approval rating plunged immediately after June's protests she has since made up much of those losses. She is currently outpacing all her potential rivals in the 2014 presidential race, in which she is widely expected to run for a second four-year term.
"We had a big wave of people mobilizing, pouring into the streets," said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at the Insper business school in Sao Paulo. "But as the wave passed, people began to ask 'what is the alternative?'"
Apparently not the PSDB, as recent polls have shown.
The 1995-2002 administration of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who helped stabilize Brazil's once-chaotic economy, is a high-water mark for the PSDB, which has lost all three succeeding presidential races to the Workers' Party.
Next year's election doesn't look much different. Support for the PSDB's most likely candidate, Aecio Neves, remains at less than half what Rousseff enjoys as he fends off competition from the PSB Party's Eduardo Campos, now running alongside popular environmental activist Marina Silva.
The PSDB's internal divisions have pitted Neves, a political scion from the state of Minas Gerais, against Jose Serra, a former Sao Paulo state governor and two-time presidential runner-up.
The 53-year-old Neves, who is hugely popular in his home state, was expected by some analysts to inject a degree of youth and excitement into the PSDB following Serra's runs for the presidency. Serra, 71, continues to hover over the party, however, raising doubts about his willingness to concede the nomination to Neves.
So far, neither has received the party's final nod.
Meanwhile, PSDB leaders are grappling with politically damaging allegations of a bribery and price-fixing scandal involving Sao Paulo's metro system, as well as a potential Supreme Court ruling on an alleged illegal campaign financing scheme that took place in 1998.
SOCIAL PROGRAMS BOOST ROUSSEFF
Rousseff herself proved in 2010 that early polls can be misleading, having definitively passed Serra just two months before the election. This time around, however, she finds her adversary in a weaker position.
"The PSDB is divided," said Roberto Romano, a political scientist with state university UNICAMP. "It does not offer a clear opposition to the Workers' Party."
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva first ushered the Workers' Party into power in 2003 on a promise to improve conditions for the poorest Brazilians, expanding the previous administration's social welfare policies into the Bolsa Familia program.
Under Rousseff, the program now serves almost one-quarter of Brazil's population, and those who benefit tend to be among her biggest supporters.
"A poor Brazilian may look at Dilma's administration and say 'Sure, it has defects, it has problems, but this government has social policies that benefit me. Would some other administration guarantee that for me?' That's what the PSDB hasn't been able to do," said Insper's Melo.
Indeed, Neves' communications strategy has been contradictory at times. Earlier this year on a popular variety show, he highlighted that his party originated the popular program. "If you could take Bolsa Familia ... and take it to a clinic to do a (DNA) exam, the name of the father would come out PSDB/FHC (Fernando Henrique Cardoso)," he said.
Last month, however, he characterized Bolsa Familia as "the daily administration of poverty," suggesting the government should work to get more people off the program than on it.
Neves has also doled out harsh criticism of the Workers' Party over corruption and their role in Brazil's weakening macroeconomic fundamentals - two subjects the country's poor have traditionally overlooked as long as their quality of life is improving.
With unemployment currently near record lows and household incomes gaining steadily, Neves' words, and the PSDB's message, may be falling on deaf ears. (Reporting by Asher Levine; Editing by Todd Benson and Eric Beech)