Rousseff's Most Powerful Foe Weakened on Ethics Committee Probe

  • Ethics committee starts chosing leader to investigate Cunha
  • The hearings may result in his removal from Congress

Brazil’s lower house will open hearings against its speaker on allegations of misconduct that could deplete his political capital and make it increasingly difficult for him to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff.

The house ethics committee on Tuesday will begin choosing a legislator to lead the probe into accusations that the chamber’s president, Eduardo Cunha, lied when he said he didn’t have bank accounts outside Brazil. He made the statement during a separate investigation into allegations he took kickbacks from contracts with state oil company Petrobras. If he’s found guilty, he could be ousted from Congress. Cunha, 57, denies any wrongdoing.

Cunha, who was elected house president in February with more votes than all his opponents combined, still musters strong support among fellow legislators. But even if he manages to hold on to his fourth term as congressman, he will lose power and prestige in the process, said political scientist Gabriel Petrus. His weakened position in turn will make it difficult for him to open an impeachment process against Rousseff, he said.

"Cunha has more at stake in this battle than Rousseff," said Petrus, a political analyst at business consulting firm Barral M Jorge. "He’s more likely to minimize his losses by negotiating a deal than accepting impeachment and risking all-out retaliation."

Impeachment Power

The lower house president is the only legislator with the power to open an impeachment process against the president. Cunha said he will decide this month whether to accept one of the pleas against Rousseff, which are based on allegations ranging from doctoring the federal budget to illegal campaign financing.

Rousseff, whose disapproval ratings increased to the highest on record for any president, says there is no justification to remove her from office.

Cunha is the focus of intense scrutiny, including media reports that allege he accepted bribes abroad to help fund a lavish lifestyle, including tens of thousands of dollars for his wife’s tennis classes. Cunha may seek a deal to save his mandate as legislator in exchange for stepping down as house president, thereby losing his prerogative as gatekeeper for the impeachment process against Rousseff, said Petrus.

Cunha in July said he would oppose the president even though his PMDB party is the largest member of the ruling coalition. Since then he has spearheaded some of the president’s most devastating defeats in Congress, including approval of a bill to boost social-security spending that threatens to further swell a record budget deficit.