October 24. Brazil’s political rollercoaster is back in action: once the most powerful politician in the land, ex-deputy Eduardo Cunha, until recently the speaker of the lower house in congress, is arrested on the orders of Judge Sergio Moro and transferred to prison in Curitiba, sowing panic among politicians in Brasilia with the prospect of a plea bargain.

Accusations against Cunha have been multiplying, along with the amount of dollars he allegedly has stashed away in foreign bank accounts, the illegal fruit of years of bribetaking and influence peddling, all now under scrutiny in the vast, sprawling Lavajato corruption investigations.

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“The hipster of the Federal Police”

This being Brazil, when pictures appeared of the ex-speaker of the congress boarding a plane on his way to a prison cell in Curitiba, the spotlight temporarily switched to one of the federal police agents escorting him, causing a social media storm. The agent, nicknamed the Lenhador, or Woodcutter, for his chunky good looks and Samurai topknot, was definitely a good deal more handsome than the stooped, shambling figure of Cunha. As a result, agents were ordered to wear balaclavas on future operations.

Cunha may not be good-looking, but he is hugely feared as a potential time bomb, the man who knows too much, and Brasilia went into panic mode.

All sessions pending in Congress were immediately suspended – Chico Alencar of PSOL, even compared it to the curfew decreed when a powerful drug traffic boss is killed or arrested – and President Michel Temer cut short his visit to Japan to hasten home.

Cunha was a deputy for the PMDB party, and the main architect of President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. The fear in PMDB circles, knowing that revenge and blackmail are part of his makeup, is that in exchange for a lighter sentence and leniency for his wife and daughter, who are also accused of money laundering and corruption, Cunha will make a plea bargain.

There were dire predictions: “if he collaborates, the government will fall.”

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“You have to understand: I am paying the price for having initiated the impeachment.” “Paying or receiving?” “Well, both” -cartoon from O Cafezinho.

Cunha is said to feel betrayed by Michel Temer, the man who became president thanks to Dilma’s impeachment. The magazine Epoca reported that Cunha could decide to reveal Temer’s role, as PMDB president, in the financing of the 2014 election campaign, via an agreement between PT and PMDB, involving illegal donations from big companies with Petrobras contracts. These campaign accounts are still under scrutiny by the Higher Electoral Court, the TSE.

If Cunha’s evidence of Temer’s involvement is overwhelming, and the accounts are eventually rejected, then new elections would have to be called. If that happens before the end of 2016, which seems unlikely, there would be a new presidential election but, after that cut-off date, a new president would be chosen indirectly, by congress.

Dancing to the toucans

Judge Sergio Moro justified the detention of Cunha on the grounds that the politician still had the power to interfere in the Lava jato investigations, and there was a risk of him fleeing the country, as he apparently has dual nationality and as yet untraced monies hidden in tax havens.

But some even see what is happening as part of a conspiracy to get the PSDB into power, eliminating first the PT, then the PMDB, to leave a clear run for the Tucanos. The problem for the PSDB is their internal divisions – they have at least three potential candidates, Aecio, Serra and Alckmin. Not to mention Fernando Henrique Cardoso who, although in his 80s, is still hovering in the wings, giving interviews, and letting it be known that in case of need, the elder statesman would step up to the plate.

After Cunha, Moro targeted another powerful PMDB leader, Renan Calheiros, president of the Senate. Federal police unexpectedly raided the Senate and arrested 4 members of the Senate’s own police force, including its chief, accusing them of acting to sabotage the Lavajato investigations involving PMDB and PT senators, by acting on Calheiros’ orders to carry out sweeps to remove possible federal police bugs in their homes.

This prompted the Senate president to vow revenge by passing a special law, obviously aimed at Moro and the federal police, to punish authorities who abuse their power,.

Frei Beto wrote ironically, “It is more and more difficult to be a traditional politician in Brazil – what with plea bargains, the Lavajato operation, bugged telephones, the end of campaign funding by companies and banks, and accords between the Brazilian courts and the foreign banks which are hiding Brazilians’ money.”

Meanwhile the latest polls show that in spite of the sustained barrage of negative news stories about the PT, Lula remains the front runner in the presidential stakes, with between 27% and 34% of the vote, while potential PSDB candidates languish in the teens. Strangely, these polls are not reported in the mainstream press.

On the left, there are many who think that Cunha’s detention will open the way for Lula’s long planned arrest, because Moro will no longer appear so one-sidedly anti-PT, as he has up to now.

Popular admiration for the fearless judge in Curitiba, who commands the political scene in Brasilia, bringing the once powerful to their knees, causing the government to tremble, at the stroke of his pen, grows apace. He is featured on magazine covers. But many in the legal profession do not share this opinion, instead seeing a judge intoxicated with his own power, and far from the impartiality demanded of someone in his position.

Meanwhile the pressing measures which Temer hoped to rush through congress, including a freeze on all government spending for 20 years, the repatriation of undeclared overseas funds, and the reform of the pensions system, remain on hold while congress waits to see what will emerge from a prison cell in Curitiba.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil