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Brazil Supreme Court Suspends House Speaker Eduardo Cunha
BRASÍLIA—Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered the country’s house speaker, who has led the impeachment drive against President Dilma Rousseff, to relinquish his post while he faces corruption charges, adding more uncertainty to the nation’s turbulent political landscape.
The order requires Eduardo Cunha to step down immediately from his influential job as speaker of the lower house of congress and relinquish his position as a federal deputy. Mr. Cunha was charged last year with pocketing millions in funds diverted from Brazil’s state oil company and hiding the money in offshore accounts, allegations he denies.
Mr. Cunha’s suspension isn’t likely to stall Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment process, which now resides with the Senate. The president is expected to be suspended as early as next week to stand trial in the upper house. She would be replaced by Vice President Michel Temer.
Some 77% of participants in a recent public opinion survey by the Datafolha polling firm said they would like to see Mr. Cunha, one of the nation’s most contentious public figures, removed from his position.
Before his suspension, Mr. Cunha was second in line behind Mr. Temer to act as president. If, after replacing Ms. Rousseff, Mr. Temer were to travel outside Brazil, for instance, Mr. Cunha would have filled in as the nation’s leader. Many Brazilians had recoiled at that idea.
Mr. Cunha’s pivotal role in seeking to remove Ms. Rousseff, his political nemesis, has raised concerns both in and outside Brazil about the legitimacy of the impeachment process. Many regard the speaker as too tarnished and partisan a figure to have led the effort.
That is proving awkward for Mr. Temer. Both men belong to the centrist Brazilian Democracy Movement Party, the nation’s largest, which is trying to convince Brazilians that it can assemble a new coalition government if Ms. Rousseff is forced from office.
“The removal of Mr. Cunha eliminates a source of discomfort for the next administration,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper business school in São Paulo. “There is a moral criticism to Brazil’s political system. Cunha has become a symbol of this evil in our society.” Still, Mr. Cunha’s departure could complicate efforts for Mr. Temer to pass legislation aimed at jumpstarting Brazil’s moribund economy and restoring investor confidence. An experienced and savvy politician, Mr. Cunha skillfully manipulated the levers of power in the lower house, whose support will be needed to pass controversial measures such as pension and labor reforms.
“It brings a level of uncertainty in the house that is not desirable when you are trying to build up a base of support,” said a person close to Mr. Temer who is familiar with his thinking. “There will be a dispute for the speakership and it will cause friction, which could make it harder to build a coalition.” The charges of money laundering and corruption against Mr. Cunha stem from a sprawling graft probe centered on state-run Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras. In December, Attorney General Rodrigo Janot asked the high court to remove Mr. Cunha from office while he awaited trial.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cunha, who repeatedly has denied wrongdoing, had no immediate comment on Thursday. She confirmed he had received the court order.
Federal Deputy Paulo Pereira da Silva, a close ally of Mr. Cunha’s, told reporters that Mr. Cunha received the news with “indignation” and viewed Mr. Zavascki as overstepping his authority.
“We are consulting with lawyers,” said Mr. da Silva, who is better known as Paulinho da Força.
Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki initially gave the order to suspend Mr. Cunha on Thursday, a decision backed by the full court later in the day. In his 73-page decision, Mr. Zavascki alleged that Mr. Cunha used his privileged position to evade his own legal woes, even as he worked to oust Ms. Rousseff.
The justice, who is in charge of all high-court cases related to the Petrobras probe, wrote that Mr. Cunha’s continuing presence in the lower house, “is derogatory to the very dignity of the institution he leads.” The court’s decision underscores Brazil’s deepening political crisis as the Senate prepares to vote May 11 on whether to force Ms. Rousseff to stand trial. She is accused of using accounting tricks to mask a growing budget deficit, allegations she denies. If she is ultimately ousted, Mr. Temer would serve out her term, which runs through the end of 2018.
A Supreme Court spokesman said the court order bars Mr. Cunha from working as a federal deputy, but will allow him to continue receiving his salary through the rest of his term, which runs through the end of 2018. He will also have the right to be tried at the Supreme Court level, skipping lower courts, an entitlement of most elected officials in Brazil.
Mr. Cunha will be succeeded temporarily as house speaker by his current deputy, Waldir Maranhão of the center-right Partido Progressista. House officials say they aren’t sure whether new elections will happen immediately or next year, when Mr. Cunha’s term as speaker otherwise would have expired.