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The Nemesis of Brazil’s Beleaguered President Is Now the One Feeling the Heat

Eduardo Cunha — the speaker of Brazil's lower house of Congress who wants to see President Rousseff impeached —is under pressure over his alleged role in a major kickback scheme in the state-owned oil company Petrobras.
Photo by Eraldo Peres/AP

Eduardo Cunha — the speaker of Brazil's lower house of Congress, who is also the nemesis of the country's president whom he wants to see impeached — did not have a good Tuesday.

The day began with police cars surrounding Cunha's official residence in Brasília in the latest phase of a criminal investigation into the country's biggest-ever corruption scandal. Police said they were executing 53 search-and-seizure warrants to "avoid important evidence being destroyed by those under investigation."


It was later reported that the warrants were related to a new Supreme Court inquiry into whether Cunha had abused his position to obstruct the vast corruption probe.

The police raids targeted a swath of top political figures in several states — all but one from the country's largest party, the PMDB, including the President of the Senate, two ministers and two senators.

But the focus was on Cunha, who was confirmed as President Dilma Rousseff's arch nemesis on December 2 when he green-lighted a request for impeachment proceedings against her on the grounds that she violated the country's budget laws.

Related: Brazil Opens Impeachment Proceedings Against President Rousseff

The PMDB is a part of the ruling coalition but is split in its loyalty towards Rousseff. The party would also stand to benefit if Rousseff were impeached as its long-standing leader, as Vice President Michel Temer would take over the presidency.

Tuesday then brought Cunha more bad news. Despite repeated delays orchestrated by his supporters, the congressional ethics committee voted to authorize an investigation that could lose him the speakership.

Cunha is accused of benefiting from a vast kickback scheme centered on state-run oil giant Petrobras that is being probed by an unprecedented criminal investigation, known as Operation Lava Jato, or Car Wash. Cunha is accused of taking a $5 million dollar bribe that was hidden in Swiss bank accounts.


Related: How Big Oil Became the Perfect Fuel for Corruption

Cunha denied the existence of the accounts at a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year. The ethics committee is now investigating whether Cunha broke parliamentary rules by lying to Congress about the accounts — proof of which has been provided by Switzerland to the Brazilian authorities and some associated documents have been published in Brazilian media. This could lead to his removal as speaker and an eight-year ban on running for elected office.

Cunha's decision to fire the starting gun in the possible impeachment of Rousseff came immediately after the ethics committee was installed with the help of votes from the president's Workers' Party. He has denied any link between the two, but Brazilian media had widely reported that he had been negotiating a deal with the president in which she helped save him from the ethics investigation if he helped keep her impeachment at bay.

Several politicians and analysts have suggested that following the police raids and the ethics investigation Cunha could step down as speaker to avoid cassation as a deputy, and a subsequent ban from elections.

Others doubt that Cunha — long known for his political survival skills — will voluntarily relinquish the power that comes with his position.

"Pressure on Cunha to go, from both his own party and the opposition, will be ramped up as questions grow over his [moral and political] authority to lead impeachment proceedings to oust the president," political scientist Cristiano Noronha, of Brasília-based Arko Advice, told VICE News.


But Noronha added he didn't think it would be enough to force the speaker out immediately.

"Cunha may well become so toxic to the opposition's attempts to oust the president that he is forced out of the speakership," Noronha said. "But he's aggressive, politically, and won't back down from trying to save his own political skin."

A government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the government was not expecting Cunha to go quietly, if he goes at all.

"The situation has become extremely complicated for Cunha. However, over the years he has fostered huge political support within the lower house, and has shown his adeptness at obstructing proceedings," the source said. "Cunha has managed to delay the ethics committee from behind the scenes, and won't let go of power now."

Related: Brazil's Top Court Outlaws Corporate Contributions to Political Campaigns

Meanwhile, the government is developing its strategy for how to handle the impeachment proceedings Cunha began at the beginning of the month, and was encouraged by an unexpectedly low turnout at pro-impeachment rallies held on the weekend.

The fact that scandal-hit Cunha is leading the process also works in the president's favor.

The president — who has always denied any wrongdoing — also currently commands enough support in Congress to block the impeachment process, but with Brazil's recession set to bite harder next year, Rousseff is keen for the vote to be brought as soon as possible.

Conversely, hoping congressional support for Rousseff will dry up, Cunha is said to want to delay the progress of the investigation against him as much as possible. Even so, with the walls now closing in from all sides, Cunha's days as one of Brazil's most influential politicians could well be numbered.

Related: The Cops Trying to 'Pacify' Rio's Favelas Are Psychologically Scarred

Follow Ben Tavener on Twitter: @BenTavener