Cunha Falls: The “House of Cards”is falling?

Cunha can’t be a happy man, right now. Image Source: folhadebrasilia


The list of politicians under investigation by General Prosecutor Rodrigo Janot and Supreme Court justice Sergio Moro contains some very familiar names: president Dilma Rousseff, interim president Michel Temer, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, senator Aecio Neves, president of the Senate Renan Calheiros and last but not least, president of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha. In this list of illustrious characters, the name of Eduardo Cunha stands out more so than any other as he recently announced his resignation as president of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress in Brazil. Mr. Cunha has a long “rap sheet” including charges of perjury, money laundering and bribes, not to mention allegations of manipulating figures reported in government accounts and attempts to intimidate members of Congress to obstruct the ongoing Lava Jato corruption scandal (Operation Carwash) investigations against him. His resignation should thus not come as a surprise to anyone paying close attention to the house of cards that has become the political reality in Brazil. But given the removal of president Rousseff from power just a few months earlier, the recent resignation of Mr. Cunha suggests that something bigger and unusual might be happening in Brazil right now.

The truth is that nobody ever had any doubts about the criminal charges against Mr. Cunha. It is just that the circus that became the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff took the spotlight away from him and placed it firmly on her; but now that Ms. Rousseff has been diligently dealt with, the country has turned its attention to Mr. Cunha once again. If compared to Ms. Rousseff, the president of the Chamber of Deputies is much smarter and more dangerous. If Mr. Cunha had to be described in a single word, there would be no better word than “Machiavellian” to describe him. Cold, cunning and calculative, his actions have earned him a worldwide reputation, as the foreign media have begun to depict him as the “real-life Frank Underwood” or the “Brazilian Frank Underwood” from the Netflix series House of Cards. His rise to prominence came through his crystal clear anti-Rousseff stance and later on his pro-impeachment declarations that made him the face of the opposition to Ms. Rousseff’s government. His mission was successfully accomplished: Ms. Rousseff has been removed from power and seems set to be ousted from the presidency for good; ironically however, once his mission had been accomplished, his own fall became inevitable.

The tale of Eduardo Cunha is that of a man who rose to the top too fast and wanted too much. His political career began with the electoral campaign for president Collor de Mello in 1989, but his rise to prominence would have to wait until 2013, when a then-unknown Eduardo Cunha captured the leadership of his party, the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) in February, and soon moved to strain the peaceful relationship Ms. Rousseff enjoyed with her allied coalition in the Chamber of Deputies. In 2014, as the president focused on her reelection bid, Mr. Cunha challenged the president for the first time. The subject of the fight with Ms. Rousseff might have been insignificant (the Provisional Measure laying out new rules for the use of harbors), but his willingness to pick a fight with the president and force her to make concessions in order to pass the provisional measure through the Chamber made Cunha a force to be reckoned with.

Cunha and Rousseff- The fight defined Cunha Source: Guim

His victory over Ms. Rousseff was followed by a meteoric rise to the top as the unofficial leader of the opposition to Dilma and her Workers’ Party (PT). Firstly, he constructed an “opposition bloc” to Ms. Rousseff’s government within the Chamber by rallying up dissatisfied deputies from parties that had both supported and opposed Ms. Rousseff’s election bid in 2010. Empowered by the large bloc he had just formed in the Chamber, Cunha openly adopted an anti-Rousseff stance and started to defend the separation of his PMDB from the alliance Ms. Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and the PMBD put together in 2010. Secondly, Mr. Cunha cruised his way to reelection for another term in the Chamber, and soon followed his reelection with the capture of the presidency of the chamber of Deputies in February of 2015 despite strong opposition from Ms. Rousseff and her Workers’ Party. His rise to the presidency of the Chamber however coincided with the large-scale investigations on the Lava Jato  (Operation Carwash) corruption scandal and the name of the newly elected president came up in the investigations under charges of obstruction of justice, perjury, bribery and money laundering. By December of 2015, Cunha appeared to be at the end of his rope as allegations of intimidation against government officials conducing the Lava Jato investigations were added to his long list of criminal offences. To make things worse, Swiss authorities later revealed his secret accounts in their country, which Cunha immediately denied (and still does). Cornered from all sides, he made a last resort to negotiate a deal with the Workers’ Party to prevent the ethics council from stripping him of his mandate in the Chamber and revoking his parliamentary protection from prosecution. Not surprisingly, the Workers’ Party refused to negotiate, which prompted Cunha’s green light for Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment procedures to begin.

The decision to start the procedures against Ms. Rousseff was completely made out of desperation and that is when everything started to crumble for Eduardo Cunha. While it is certainly true the impeachment of the first female president of Brazil bought him some valuable time to try to stall all investigations against him, it also put Cunha next in line to be taken down. Ms. Rousseff’s unpopularity was due to the horrendous recession she had plunged Brazil into and her outright nonchalant attitude towards the corruption of government officials close to her. Ms. Rousseff is guilty of being completely incompetent and of turning a blind eye to the corruption of those around her, but it was always Mr. Cunha that would sooner or later have to respond to more serious charges. In this sense, Mr. Cunha completely misread the political context in Brazil. The demonstrations that filled the streets of the main cities from 2013 to 2016 were directed towards the end of corruption in general; the giant inflatable dolls of Ms. Rousseff, her predecessor Mr. Lula da Silva and of Mr. Cunha himself that were often seen on the streets prove as much. Therefore, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff alone would never satisfy the demands of voters who took it to the streets to protest their outrage with what Brazil had become. The impeachment of Ms. Rousseff was thus only the first (and most important) step in the process of ridding Brazil of corruption once and for all. But now that president Dilma was gone, Mr. Cunha was naturally the next target.

The resignation of Eduardo Cunha thus brings some good and bad news for Brazilians. The good news is that Eduardo Cunha is officially out of the Chamber of Deputies and therefore has erased any chances of becoming president one day. To Vice President Michel Temer, the resignation of Cunha ought to grant his shaky administration somewhat greater legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Mr. Temer may have lost his PMDB partner, but the unwillingness to cease or postpone the investigations on Cunha ought to reward the interim president with some popularity points after a troubled start to his presidency. However, there are also reasons to be skeptic about Cunha’s sudden resignation. Political scientists point out to Cunha’s resignation as possibly being part of an elaborate plan to cease all investigations on his involvement in the Lava Jato (Operation Carwash) scandal by paving the way for one of his allies in the Chamber to be elected and submitting a formal request to the ethics committee in the Chamber of Deputies to cease all investigations against him. Regardless of whether Cunha’s resignation is good or bad news for Brazil, his unexpected exit from government lends support to the idea that something bigger than Mr. Cunha and Ms. Rousseff themselves is currently happening in Brazil.



It is certainly tempting to compare Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment and the events that have followed her removal from power with the impeachment of president Collor de Mello back in 1992, and while there are definitely lessons to be leaned from the impeachment episode of 1992, comparing the two would not be fitting. The impeachment of Ms. Rousseff somewhat resembles the resignation of Argentinian president Fernando de la Rua much more than it does the impeachment of president Collor de Mello, not because of the causes that led to each presidential breakdown, but rather because of the consequences both engendered. The literature on presidential breakdowns, be they impeachments or resignations, usually describe the unwillingness from the part of the public to remove the members of the legislature alongside the embattled president. The blame for the nation’s shortcomings and ills usually falls entirely on the executive’s shoulders, and while the people tend to have a low opinion of their legislators in episodes of presidential breakdown, they expect them to adhere to the public’s wishes and initiate the process to remove presidents from office. The cases of de la Rua in Argentina in 2001 and now of Dilma Rousseff in 2016 digress from said literature however.

The recent fall of Eduardo Cunha just a few months after Ms. Rousseff was removed from the presidency suggests that the public’s ire was not solely directed towards Dilma Rousseff but rather towards the entire political class in power. According to polls conducted by Datafolha, nearly 77% of voters wished for Mr. Cunha to have his mandate stripped, compared to the 66% that wished the same for Dilma. After Dilma fell, the biggest fear for many Brazilians was that they had just handed over their country on a silver platter to the likes of Eduardo Cunha and Michel Temer. Not surprisingly, demonstrations against Cunha and Temer soon erupted in some cities. The consequences of Ms. Rousseff’s fall from power however do not resemble anything that happened after president Collor de Mello fell in 1992 however. Unlike Eduardo Cunha, the president of the Chamber of Deputies at the time, Mr. Ibsen Valls Pinheiro, did not seek a vanguard role in the impeachment process against Mr. Collor de Mello, but instead limited himself to just conducting the impeachment process itself. Furthermore, there were no wide-range scandals such as the Lava Jato (Operation Carwash) that implicated so many members of Congress at the time. When the people took it to the streets to protest, they directed their ire only towards president Collor due to the hyperinflation that was tearing the country apart and the corruption scandal that implicated the president personally. Once Collor de Mello was removed, no protests against members of Congress followed.

In Argentina however, violent demonstrations against the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary not only followed the resignation of president de la Rua, but were also accompanied by lootings and the destruction of governmental buildings. While it is necessary to take into account that the economic situation in Argentina in 2001 was in a far more critical stage than both Brazil’s in 1992 and right now, the presidential crisis that ultimately resulted in the “Que se vayan todos!” episode presents a nicer template to understand the current situation in Brazil. After Fernando de la Rua resigned, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa took over as a “caretaker president” after being appointed by Congress, but resigned after just eight days following the violent riots and bank lootings that soon broke out in the streets of Buenos Aires. During the riots, the angry demonstrators marched to the Supreme Court to demand the resignation of the justices; to the government palace to demand the removal of corrupt public-officials, and to the Plaza de Mayo to trench themselves in front of the presidential palace. Some even went as far as breaking in to the Congress building and sacking its offices. It was thus clear that the Argentines were outraged towards all institutions and politicians, not just the former De la Rua’s administration. Following Rodriguez Saa’s resignation, the Argentines had to endure five other presidents within two weeks, to which they responded with the slogan “Que se vayan todos!” to demand the entire political elite to step down.

Compared to Argentina, there is no reason to believe that the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff and the resignation of Mr. Cunha will ever trigger such a self-destructive episode as the “Que se Vayan Todos!” movement. As a matter of fact, on April 1st, weeks before the Chamber voted to start the impeachment procedures against Ms. Rousseff, voters from São Paulo gathered in the main avenue of the city and started a generalized demonstration towards all and every politician with the slogan “Fora Todos” (a very close Portuguese translation to the Spanish Que se Vayan Todos). The targets of the demonstration were president Rousseff, former president Lula da Silva, interim president Michel Temer, president of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha, president of the Senate Renan Calheiros, and senator Aecio Neves. Unlike in Buenos Aires however, the demonstration was peaceful. Furthermore, unlike their Argentinians counterparts, Brazilians still seem to hold their Judiciary highly, which can be proved by the figure of justice Sergio Moro who is hailed as a hero for his willingness to crack down on corrupt politicans. In this sense, all evidence points to a softer Brazilian version of the Argentine “Que se Vayan Todos” episode. The Brazilian version will not be as violent, but do not be surprised if more upper echelon politicians either resign or are arrested. Regardless of who falls and who survives, the political reality that Brazil is going through right now is unique and ought to shape the future of the country for the next decade. Hopefully, it will shape it into something better than the present.

Lucas Silva Lopes

Lucas was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, having lived there for fifteen years prior to moving to the United Kingdom, where he currently resides. At the moment, Lucas is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science with a minor in economics at the University of Connecticut in the United States.

His research interests lie in the fields of political economy and economic history of Latin America. At the moment, he is conducting research for his honors thesis on presidential challenges in Latin America since 1978 and the political and socioeconomic consequences they bring to each country.

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