Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

In Brazil, Graft Trial Threatens Lula’s Legacy

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There is one story dominating the Brazilian headlines: The mensalão, a huge corruption case that could taint the legacy of former President Lula and the reputation of his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party—PT) to which his successor Dilma Rousseff belongs. 

Certainly the scope is wide. With 38 high-profile defendants including former ministers, bankers and wealthy businessmen, 600 witnesses and, according to calculations by Globo, a slush-fund of more than R$100 million ($49.7 million) in public funds, the mensalão has been dubbed the “trial of the century” by commentators here.

Prosecutors charge that, from 2003 to 2005, public money was handed to some members of the ruling coalition as a “mensalão”—roughly translated to “big monthly payment”—to ensure their support on key votes. The money was allegedly moved through government contracts granted to private companies, which then redistributed the funds amongst legislators.

The defendants deny the accusations, originally made by whistle-blower Roberto Jefferson, president of the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (Brazilian Worker Party—PTB) who belonged to Lula’s coalition but did not support Dilma’s bid for the presidency.  If found guilty of the charges, which include corruption and racketeering, the defendants could face prison terms of up to 45 years.

So far Lula has not been accused of direct involvement. But with defendants ranging from his former chief of staff Jose Dirceu, who was being groomed as Lula’s successor until the scandal broke, to the PT’s former President José Genoino and former PT Treasurer Delúbio Soares, many here are expressing skepticism toward Lula’s claims of ignorance. Others say the damage is done: Even if there turns out to be no testimony that implicates him, the conviction of so many of his former top aides must surely harm his reputation and diminish his political role.

Commentators are calling this a watershed moment for Brazil. With a growing middle class that is increasingly politically aware and intolerant of graft, there is broad public support for the prosecution. But cynicism about the efficacy of the justice system, where politicians are concerned, remains. On Sunday, Folha reported on a poll showing that while almost three quarters of Brazilians think the defendants should go to jail, only one in ten expect prison terms.

As for President Rousseff, it is unlikely that she will be contaminated by the scandal directly. She has never been implicated, and was not connected to the defendants even when she worked in Lula’s administration as minister for mines and energy. Moreover, she has made significant moves toward tackling corruption since she took power in 2011. She has pushed out seven ministers under suspicion of graft, and introduced a freedom of information law that has already seen the salaries of politicians and public servants released online.

In fact, some analysts think that if harsh terms were brought down, it might actually be a good thing for Dilma. Given her anti-corruption credentials, strong, active condemnation of the alleged scheme could reflect well on Dilma personally, even though in reality it would not be her decision.

“A harsh sentence would, of course, be bad because it would show that leaders of the then-PT organized all this,” said David Fleischer, a political scientist at the Universidade de Brasília. “But then the current PT could say, ‘This page has been turned and the new leadership had nothing to do with the mensalão.’”

“Ironically, this could be a good thing for Dilma, as it could act as a cleansing activity for her and her political ambitions,” Fleischer added.

It is unlikely, though, that her party will escape unscathed. While the PT was not the only party involved, the scheme was allegedly masterminded by PT’s top brass, and Lula remains—even more than Dilma—the figurehead most associated with the party. A legislative advisor in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies said that he believed that the party would permanently lose some of its legitimacy.

“The PT as any other party is formed by good and bad members. The problem was in this case, corruption was among a great number of the most important leaders of the Party,” said the advisor, who wished to remain anonymous.

“I believe the image of PT as the ‘anti-corruption’ party will never recover from this awful chapter of its history.”

Lucy Jordan is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. She is a freelance writer based in Brasília, Brazil who covers politics and the environment. Her Twitter account is @lucyjord.


Lucy Jordan is a freelance writer based in Brasília, Brazil. She writes mostly about politics and the environment.

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