Petrobras scandal deepens political crisis in Brazil

Leader of lower house Eduardo Cunha could face trial over accusation he took $5m bribe

Eduardo Cunha, president of Brazil’s lower house of parliament, who has been accused of accepting a $5 million  bribe in return for helping a company win contracts to supply  oil giant Petrobras with drill ships. Photograph: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

Eduardo Cunha, president of Brazil’s lower house of parliament, who has been accused of accepting a $5 million bribe in return for helping a company win contracts to supply oil giant Petrobras with drill ships. Photograph: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

 

Brazil’s political crisis has entered a new and more volatile phase with last week’s decision by federal prosecutors to formally charge the powerful president of the lower house of congress with corruption.

Eduardo Cunha became the first sitting politician charged in the sprawling investigation into wrongdoing at state-controlled Petrobras, accused of accepting a $5 million (€4.4 million) bribe in return for helping a company win contracts to supply the oil giant with drill ships. As a sitting politician, Cunha’s case can only be judged by the country’s supreme court, which now must decide on whether he should face trial before it.

Also charged was former president Fernando Collor, now a senator, for accepting €6.6 million in bribes in return for contracts in Petrobras’ fuel distribution business. Collor, who was impeached from the presidency for corruption in 1992, claimed the accusations were part of a “media circus”.

But it is Cunha’s legal woes that add new layers of constitutional and political uncertainty to the crisis that has gripped Brasília all year as the corruption scandal formally reaches the leadership of one of the three branches of government with charges now laid against the person second in the presidential line of succession at a time when President Dilma Rousseff is facing calls for her removal.

The charges against the head of the lower house come as Brazil’s top electoral court is still to rule on whether President Rousseff’s re-election bid violated campaign finance laws in last year’s presidential contest by using bribes solicited from Petrobras contractors. On Friday a supreme court judge who sits on the electoral court ordered a new investigation of the campaign’s accounts. If the court decides to cancel her mandate and that of her vice-president Michel Temer, Mr Cunha would be in line to assume the presidency for 90 days while new elections are organised, assuming he is still in his post

Efforts are now under way to remove him with deputies from 10 parties releasing a manifesto claiming his continued leadership of the house “is incompatible with his condition of accused”. But members of Cunha’s own party, the populist Democratic Movement of Brazil, the biggest in congress, opposed the move, releasing a note saying: “The presumption of innocence is a key constitutional clause and we vow to uphold the federal constitution.”

Cunha’s removal would be greeted with relief by Rousseff, whom he has worked to undermine in recent months. But he seems determined to fight to hold onto his job denying the charges made against him and accusing prosecutors of colluding with the president as part of a strategy “to shut me up and retaliate against my political performance”.

He cited as evidence the absence of any members of the president’s Workers Party from the first list of sitting politicians charged with involvement in the Petrobras scandal, despite their being investigated by prosecutors.

Cunha formally broke with Rousseff last month after emerging this year as her most dangerous political opponent. He has used his control over the lower house to help advance efforts to impeach her while launching so-called “agenda bombs” designed to undermine her unpopular austerity programme and expand investigations into corruption to other areas of the federal government in the hope of further implicating the president’s Workers Party in wrongdoing.

Cunha’s effort to defend himself from what he sees as prosecutorial persecution could count on considerable support in the chamber he leads as 166 of its 513 deputies have been charged by prosecutors before the supreme court with a wide range of crimes from homicide to misuse of public funds. Dozens more, including those members of Rousseff’s Workers Party under investigation, face being added to the list as prosecutors are expected to charge more politicians in the Petrobras scandal.

With the cases against those involved in the Petrobras scandal so far having been meticulously built by prosecutors and having already resulted in dozens of convictions, many analysts argue that Cunha’s position is unsustainable in the long-term. But the immediate question for Rousseff is how much damage he can cause her government before he’s forced out.

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