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Brazil’s Supreme Court to Begin Historic Corruption Trial

Brazil's Supreme Court will open the mensalão trial on August 2. (Photo: Camila F.)

July 31, 2012

On August 2, Brazil’s Supreme Court will commence one of the largest corruption trials in history, trying 38 people accused of participating in a congressional vote-buying scandal. Initially revealed during former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first administration in 2005, the scheme was dubbed the mensalão, or “big allowance.” The Supreme Court started investigating the case in 2007, and will now begin hearing arguments and trying defendants. The case has implications for government transparency and political crimes, particularly in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s ministerial sweep last year. The trial also has political dimensions that could affect municipal elections in October, since the scandal originated within Lula’s Worker’s Party, known as the PT in Portuguese.

Brazil’s myriad political parties often require the president to create a coalition in Congress. Lula’s coalition lacked a majority during both of his administrations, and the PT allegedly turned to vote-buying to win support in the legislature. In a court document, Attorney General Roberto Gurgel defined the case as "the most daring and outrageous corruption scheme and embezzlement of public funds ever seen in Brazil." Defendants stand accused of using advertising budgets and pensions from state-run companies to pay monthly bribes to congressmen—in exchange for votes on ruling party legislation. The Court will try defendants on a number of charges, including corruption, conspiracy, embezzlement, tax evasion, money-laundering, and fraud. While Lula is not among the accused, some of his closest allies are, including his former Chief of Staff José Dirceu de Oliveira e Silva and the former PT President José Genoino.

The trial has important implications for Brazilian politics and transparency. The Economist wrote that the trial in and of itself is a victory, and that it could “chip away at Brazil’s culture of impunity for the powerful.” A July 29 editorial from Folha de São Paulo said: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that what’s on trial is what society accepts or rejects in the sphere of political practice.” Brazilian political scientist and historian Maria Celina d'Araújo told Estado de São Paulo that the systemized corruption in the mensalão case reflects institutional shifts. “With good institutions, we can reduce corruption,” she said. Rousseff herself benefitted from cracking down on corruption when she gained national acclaim for removing ministers accused of wrongdoing from her cabinet in 2011.

The trial could have an impact on PT candidates in October’s municipal elections, particularly in São Paulo state. The PT is pinning its hopes on former Education Minister Fernando Haddad to win the mayoralty of São Paulo city, which hasn’t had a PT mayor since 2004. Two politicians accused of participating in the scandal are even on the campaign trail. Former House of Representatives leader João Paulo Cunha—one of the mensalão defendants—is a candidate for mayor of Osasco in São Paulo state. Another defendant, Luiz Carlos da Silva, is working on the campaign of the PT’s mayoral candidate in Santo André, also in São Paulo state. The opposition hopes the trial could win votes for its candidates, assuming voters feel unsatisfied with the PT. But analysts say Brazilian voters may not take the case into account. Lula won reelection in 2006 after the scandal broke, and “the relationship between the [mensalão defendants] and the electorate grows more and more distant,” said Brazilian political scientist Roberto Romano.

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