This week’s arrest of Eduardo Cunha—the former president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, a leading member of President Michel Temer’s PMDB party, and a principal architect of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment—is a major turning point for the massive Car Wash corruption investigation that has mesmerized Brazil for much of the past two years.
Cunha’s arrest and imprisonment offers an important and overdue corrective to the narrative that the investigation is a political witch hunt aimed at President Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT). The arrest is also in many ways a rebuke to Brazil’s high court, the Supreme Federal Tribunal (STF), which failed to move against Cunha while he had special standing in the STF by virtue of being an elected federal official. Calls to reduce the practical impunity of elected officials in the timid and slow high court may well be strengthened by the increasing evidence of a two-track justice system that privileges the powerful. Finally, the arrest will have huge political aftershocks in Brasília, since Cunha will be under heavy pressure to reach a plea bargain that would allow him to reduce his jail time. While such deals typically take months to negotiate, even the prospect of a deal is likely to drive many of Cunha’s former party colleagues and allies to distraction.