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Sāo Paulo, May 5: The news that the all-powerful and seemingly untouchable Speaker of the Lower House, Eduardo Cunha, the Machiavelli of Brazilian politics, has been removed from office by a Supreme Court ruling, was greeted with jubilation by many Brazilians.
Someone let off fireworks in Brasilia; in São Paulo high school students, occupying the Legislative Assembly to demand an investigation into a school meals fraud, cheered; and radio and TV programmes were interrupted with the news. Social media buzzed with comments and memes. The most popular was the phrase Tchau Querido (Bye Darling), a reference to the derisory Tchau Querida posters waved by Cunha supporters when President Dilma’s impeachment process was approved in the Chamber of Deputies.
For a while, the impeachment process of President Dilma has been overshadowed by this newest, long-awaited and much-celebrated development, removing one of the most powerful and apparently most corrupt politicians from the scene. Thursday’s early morning decision by Supreme Court judge, Teori Zavascki, to accept the General Prosecutor’s case against Cunha and suspend him from office pending his trial, was confirmed the same day by the unanimous vote of the full court.
In his ruling, judge Zavascki listed eleven separate situations where Cunha used his office as speaker to intimidate or coerce fellow parliamentarians, lawyers or public servants with the aim of confusing or delaying investigations. These situations occurred both in the criminal justice case known as Lava Jato (where Cunha is accused of corruption) and in the investigation being carried out by Chamber of Deputies’ own Ethics Commission, which is trying him for breach of parliamentary decorum.
What seems to have galvanised the Supreme Court into taking its momentous decision, after five months of procrastination, is the imminent impeachment of Dilma and the realisation that, once Michel Temer becomes president and has to make international trips (one is scheduled for June), the role of interim president would go to Cunha as Speaker of the House.
The idea of the Brazilian presidency being held, even for a few days, by a man accused of holding undeclared Swiss bank accounts, money laundering, bribe taking and tax evasion, finally spurred the Supreme Court into action. Possibly the last straw was the news that Cunha, a close ally of Michel Temer, wanted to choose the new director of the Inland Revenue Department, which would give him not only access to everyone`s income tax returns, but advance warning of operations against tax evaders planned by the department.
One of the judges, Luis Barroso, quoted a phrase he heard from a student, which he said had stuck in his mind: “I don’t want to go and live in a different country, I want to live in a different Brazil.”
Cunha, furious at the decision, immediately accused the General Prosecutor of political persecution and said he would not step down. The leaders of six political parties allied to Cunha issued a note accusing the Supreme Court of “institutional disequilibrium” by interfering in Congress.
In the Chamber of Deputies Vice Speaker Waldyr Maranhão, another Cunha ally, immediately took over, and, acting in his master`s voice, suspended the session and switched off the mikes, to prevent anti-Cunha deputies celebrating the decision. Speaking until they were hoarse, a group of deputies, many of them women, led by the feisty 80-year-old Luiza Erundina, a former mayor São Paulo for the Workers’ Party (PT), took over the proceedings to commemorate the downfall.
Waldyr Maranhão, who is also being investigated in the Lava Jato inquiry, is said to be weak and indecisive. Already moves are afoot to get rid of him and to elect a new Speaker, not linked to Cunha.
The Supreme Court decision was not only welcomed by the government, which had accused Cunha of speeding up the impeachment process “in revenge” for not defending him in the Ethics Committee, but also, more discreetly, by the President-in-waiting, Michel Temer. In Temer’s inner circle there was discomfort at Cunha’s prominent role, as he has been calling in favours for bulldozing through the impeachment and demanding a say in choosing the new ministers.
Temer’s promise of reducing the ministry from Dilma´s bloated cabinet of 37 has come face-to-face with reality – the need to accommodate all the parties who voted for impeachment, and who all want a seat at the top table. The lofty proposal for a government of “notables” has been ditched, and replaced with what seems more like a government of nonentities, several of them accused of corruption and being investigated in the Lava Jato scandal. The PSDB, agonizing over whether to join the Temer government or remain aloof from the spectacle of realpolitik, decided to present him with a list of 15 demands for good government, most of them incompatible with Temer’s need to satisfy his allies’ appetite for power.
So, even before he has replaced Dilma, Temer is under fire from Greeks and Trojans alike. But there is one place where everyone is very happy with what is happening. In Btaaboura, a small village in the north of Lebanon, which the Temer family left in the 1920s to emigrate to Brazil, friends and relatives are proud of their most successful son. The joke is that Brazil will have a Lebanese president before Lebanon itself, where the post has been empty for two years as rival religious factions cannot agree. Indeed, Temer himself would not be eligible if he had stayed, as his family are Greek Orthodox Christians.
Meanwhile, although overshadowed by the Cunha story, the impeachment process rolls on. On Friday the Senate subcommitee voted, as expected, 15 to 5, to approve the rapporteur’s report, which means that next Wednesday, 11 May, the plenary session to decide on Dilma’s suspension from the presidency will be held. It could last all day and into the next. But there is no doubt about the verdict.