Seven years after a corruption scandal rattled the government of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s Supreme Court began on Thursday a landmark trial that could mar the wildly popular leader’s legacy. Brazilians still don’t know the extent of the infamous “mensalão” scandal, an alleged scheme to pay legislators a monthly retainer in exchange for their support in Congress.
If prosecutors get their way, though, they could convict as many as 38 former officials and associates of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT), several of whom were senior aides to Lula at the time, including three former ministers.
The affair has little bearing on the day-to-day dealings of President Dilma Rousseff, who was hand-picked by Lula to succeed him and won the election with his strong support.
But the trial, expected to last over a month, will be closely watched across Brazil and is the subject of magazine covers, front-page spreads, and heated conversations in living rooms, bars and street corners.
At stake is the legacy of Brazil’s most popular politician in the last half century. He was sluggish in his initial response to the scandal, defending some of the accused, but is still beloved after an eight-year administration during which Brazil’s economy grew by an annual average greater than 4%.
Though re-elected for a second term one year after the scandal toppled trusted deputies, details that may emerge during the trial could cast doubt on Lula’s longstanding denials that he knew about alleged payments.
They could also impact any plans he harbors to return to the presidency, a remote possibility he has acknowledged should Rousseff decide against seeking re-election in 2014.
On Wednesday citizens in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, spelled “mensalão” in candles along a central avenue. In Brasília, security guards in black suits and sunglasses lined the perimeter of the colonnaded Supreme Court building.
Corruption is still a major problem in Brazil, from small town councils all the way to the federal Congress, where many lawmakers are experts at back-room deals and often rat each other out to reporters.
“It’s often said that there is no punishment in Brazil,” former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a video by his centrist party, the PSDB (Party of the Brazilian Social Democracy), the chief opposition to the ruling populist Workers’ Party, PT. “Now we have an important moment, a moment for Brazilian history.”