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article imageCunha: Scandal-plagued political operator targeting Rousseff

By Natalia Ramos (AFP)     Apr 15, 2016 in Politics

At every stage of the battle to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, lower house Speaker Eduardo Cunha has been at the center of the action -- despite facing allegations of corruption himself.

Most politicians in Cunha's predicament might already have fallen, but the master tactician has always had a trump card in his power as speaker of the lower house to oversee the impeachment process.

As the drive to impeach Rousseff enters its decisive stages with a vote by lawmakers expected on Sunday, Cunha is again at the center of the bitter political crisis shaking Latin America's biggest country.

Rousseff this week referred to him as one of "two leaders of the coup" she says is unfolding against her.

Despite being accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes during a massive embezzlement scandal at state oil company Petrobras, as well as hiding money in Swiss accounts, Cunha has kept ahead of his own enemies and remained the go-to man in the push against the president.

The government long maneuvered to try to prevent Cunha from launching impeachment petitions lodged in Congress. But the formidable anti-Rousseff lobby pressured him to pull the trigger -- and Cunha proved expert at playing both sides.

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

Lower house members who support the impeachment demonstrate during the lower house session of the Co...
Lower house members who support the impeachment demonstrate during the lower house session of the Congress in Brasilia on April 15, 2016
Evaristo Sa, AFP

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

Some analysts have said that all along this drama was in large part about Cunha looking after his own career, using the impeachment as a way to distract and delay any move over the corruption charges against him.

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

Cunha explained the balancing act crisply.

"If I bring down Dilma, then the next day you will bring down me," he was quoted as telling Congressional foes of his own.

- 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.

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

Cunha has carved out a profile with the growing Evangelical Christian wing in Congress, promoting conservative social agendas including "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 in 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 likened to 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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