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Opponent turns Dilma Rousseff’s fate into political calculation
The fate of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, and of Latin America’s biggest economy, may hang on the political calculations of a would-be impeacher who is himself seeking to avoid becoming the impeached.
With the president facing record low popularity, a deepening recession and a vast corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-owned oil group, that has embroiled her Workers Party (PT), calls for her impeachment are mounting. Eduardo Cunha, as speaker of Brazil’s lower house of parliament, has the power to accept or reject impeachment petitions and control the timing of any move against Ms Rousseff.
But the question for the opposition is how long Mr Cunha will be around to deliver an impeachment at all.
On Wednesday, Mr Cunha, a conservative member of the centrist PMDB party, received an updated petition from two prominent lawyers — including Hélio Bicudo, a founding PT member turned dissident — calling for Ms Rousseff’s impeachment. The petition builds on an earlier motion accusing Ms Rousseff of irregularities in the 2014 national accounts by including allegations the practices continued this year. Ms Rousseff has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Cunha was pictured happily receiving the petition surrounded by grinning opposition members hungry for the president’s blood.
However, the speaker himself is facing steadily worsening corruption allegations that have sparked moves in the lower house to have him kicked out of Congress.
The house’s ethics commission is investigating the allegations and will “decide on whether to recommend to Congress to cancel his mandate”, said José Carlos Araújo, the commission’s president. If it does so and Congress follows the advice, “he would cease to be a [member of Congress] and therefore house speaker”, Mr Araújo told the Financial Times.
In Brazil, only the Supreme Court can try sitting politicians, making it harder to pursue any potential corruption charges against Mr Cunha while he remains in Congress.
Mr Cunha has begun fighting a rearguard action in which his best hope is to use his remaining leverage — his power to kick off an impeachment process — to persuade the government and opposition not to strip him of his congressional mandate, say analysts.
A consummate dealmaker, Mr Cunha is a political survivor who secured the house speaker position against the wishes of Ms Rousseff, who narrowly won a second four-year term in elections a year ago.
He did so by rallying backbenchers in Congress — the so-called “lower clergy” — with promises of support and campaign funding, according to João Feres Júnior, political scientist at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “He’s king of these guys,” said Mr Feres.
A devout Christian, Mr Cunha is also known for his extreme conservatism, introducing legislation such as bills on “heterosexual rights” and toughening the law on abortion for rape victims that appeal to Congress’s strong evangelical faction.
Ms Rousseff’s losses this year had seemed to be Mr Cunha’s gains. As her power waned on the back of the deepening recession, rising unemployment and record low approval ratings, it flowed to the congressman from Rio de Janeiro. With his influence peaking, he began challenging Ms Rousseff`s centrepiece programme, a fiscal adjustment to stabilise the economy and return to growth.
But Mr Cunha’s currency plunged after major newspapers published documents purporting to show secret accounts he held in Switzerland. Meanwhile a suspect in the Petrobras case who has entered into a plea bargain with authorities alleged Mr Cunha received $5m in bribes related to the company’s contracts. Mr Cunha has denied the allegations and says he is a victim of persecution by state prosecutors.
But the corruption allegations are rapidly sapping his legitimacy, according to many political analysts. Even support among his colleagues in the “lower clergy” is rapidly thinning, said Mr Feres.
“Eduardo Cunha’s problem is that he is a [politically] condemned man, he has not even a minor chance of surviving in the long term,” said Fernando Schüler, a professor at Insper in São Paulo.
Aware that neither the opposition nor the government will mount a fierce assault on his position for fear of pushing him into the arms of the other side, says Mr Schüler, Mr Cunha has so far declined to comment on when he will accept or reject Wednesday’s petition. But, Mr Schüler notes, neither side in the fragmented lower house has the numbers to offer him a guaranteed deal ensuring his survival.
He now has two choices — to stay on as house speaker while trying to sew up a deal or to resign quickly as house speaker and try to control the appointment of a successor able to influence any move to cancel his mandate as a congressman.
Whatever choice he makes, Brazil is likely to be the loser as the legislative agenda becomes further hostage to politics. “At some point … he will be forced to step down,” said Mr Feres. “It is just a matter of time and I think the opposition is willing for him to do as much harm as he can before he leaves office.