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article imageCunha: Brazil's master tactician put in check

By Natalia Ramos (AFP)     May 5, 2016 in Politics

Eduardo Cunha led the battle to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, but just days before her likely suspension, the powerful lower house speaker has suffered the same fate.

For months Cunha executed an expert balancing act, fending off corruption charges against him in the Petrobras scandal engulfing Brazil while wielding the threat of impeachment over Rousseff's head.

But now that the lower house has voted to impeach Rousseff -- likely to be suspended from office next week when the Senate opens the impeachment trial -- Cunha is taking a fall himself.

Cunha, 57, is facing trial before the Supreme Court, accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes as part of a massive embezzlement scandal at state oil company Petrobras, as well as hiding money in Swiss accounts.

Until now he had dodged that bullet. But early Thursday, Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavaski suspended Cunha, citing obstruction of justice "to prevent the success of investigations against him."

With that ruling, the justice succeeded where Rousseff had desperately tried -- and failed.

The government had long maneuvered to stop Cunha from launching impeachment petitions lodged in Congress by Rousseff's foes and for a while he seemed ready to play along.

Cunha explained his balancing act crisply -- and perhaps prophetically: "If I bring down Dilma, then the next day you will bring down me," he was quoted as telling Congressional foes of his own.

But in reality he was playing both sides.

Key players in Brazil's political crisis
Key players in Brazil's political crisis
Anella Reta, Gustavo Izús, AFP

"He was unpredictable because he was picking what strategy to use to survive," said Carlos Pereira, an analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Until July last year, he was an ostensible ally of Rousseff, as a high-ranking member of the PMDB party, which was then in coalition with the president's Workers' Party.

Then he stormed out, declaring himself in opposition, followed by the whole party this March, leaving Rousseff without one of her main coalition partners just as she faced her impeachment battle.

Cunha then revealed himself as the mastermind of the impeachment drive, working every legislative trick to put Rousseff at a disadvantage and to get the lower house approval for the measure. Eventually the house voted overwhelmingly to send Rousseff to the Senate for trial.

- Evangelical lobby -

The PMDB is a centrist party that has been part of every government coalition since the end of the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1985.

Brazilian deputies celebrate the decision of the Supreme Court to remove the deputy Eduardo Cunha of...
Brazilian deputies celebrate the decision of the Supreme Court to remove the deputy Eduardo Cunha of the presidency of the lower house of Congress in Brasilia, on May 5, 2016
Andressa Anholete, AFP

Cunha has carved out a profile with the growing Evangelical Christian wing in Congress, promoting conservative a social agenda that includes a "Heterosexual Pride Day" and restrictions on abortion. He has been reported to own no less than 150 Internet domains using the name "Jesus."

In the capital he is considered one of the best wheelers and dealers, building a considerable support base including among the powerful agriculture lobby, fellow Evangelicals and the so-called "bullet caucus," made up of politicians with security forces connections.

More than once Cunha has been called Brazil's answer to Frank Underwood, the scheming character at the center of the dark Netflix political series "House of Cards."

But Cunha is not flattered. The fictional US president "is a thief, a homosexual and a murderer," he said. "And I'm not."

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