Trial of Brazil Impeachment Mastermind Has Lawmakers on Edge

  • Former house speaker Cunha may implicate allies, Eurasia says
  • Vote on Cunha ouster may not come until Tuesday morning

The politician who led the drive to impeach president Dilma Rousseff himself faces a congressional trial that could rattle her successor’s government.

Brazil’s lower house started on Monday night a debate on whether to expel former speaker Eduardo Cunha on charges he lied over holding Swiss bank accounts. He denies wrongdoing, including accusations by prosecutors he stashed kickbacks in the accounts. The discussion is expected to last into the morning hours, when a vote should be held.

The fate of one the most influential lawmakers in Brazil’s recent history could stall President Michel Temer’s reform agenda if he decides to retaliate by revealing corruption among his peers, or heighten public anger over corruption in politics if he avoids expulsion.

“He has a vindictive character and could mobilize deputies against the reforms,” said Marco Antonio Carvalho Teixeira, professor of political science at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank and business school. “If Cunha gets a lighter sentence, that would be catastrophic for the government.” 

Cunha, who also faces criminal investigations, has been dubbed by local media as a “walking time bomb” for his potential to retaliate against coalition members. “The fear amongst party leaders is that he could implicate key ministers within Temer’s administration, or even the president himself,” Eurasia Group political consulting firm said in a research note. Cunha has rejected the idea that he would incriminate others by signing a plea bargain deal with prosecutors. Such deals are “only for those who committed crimes and I haven’t committed any,” he said in an interview with Folha de S.Paulo on Monday.

On the other hand, a decision allowing the former speaker to keep his mandate could exacerbate the perception among many Brazilians that Rousseff’s impeachment was unfair in the context of broader impunity. Supporters of the ousted president have accused Temer’s camp of double standards when it comes to corruption allegations. 

Dozens of legislators, including Cunha, are being investigated in relation to the scheme of kickbacks from state-owned oil company Petrobras, which has already landed some of the country’s leading executives behind bars.

The case of the former Evangelical radio host, who has repeatedly outmaneuvered his critics to avoid punishment despite mounting accusations of wrongdoing, has gripped Brazil. Cunha, who abandoned Rousseff’s coalition last year, initiated the impeachment proceedings in December against the then-president for manipulating public accounts.

Temer relies on congressional support to pass austerity measures and pull Latin America’s largest economy out of its worst recession in decades. These include cuts to pension benefits and other unpopular measures. While he nominally enjoys an ample congressional majority, some of his allies have voiced concern over controversial bills, particularly ahead of municipal elections next month.

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