On August 2, 2005, Brazil’s biggest case of political corruption went before the Brazilian Supreme Court. The incident became known as the Mensalão Scandal (“mensalão" meaning “big monthly” allowance) and gave large payments of roughly $10,000 from public funds to buy political favors.
The allegation led to the downfall of several members of Congress and senior members of the government. José Dirceu, who was then-president Lula da Silva’s chief of staff, was accused of being the mastermind behind the scheme. He resigned and a few months later he was also impeached by Congress.
With over 600 witness testimonies and 37 defendants, it took two years before the trial began. Twenty-five of the 37 defendants were convicted and 12 of them were high-ranking officials, such as politicians and executives. The scandal involved members from each of Brazil’s four political parties.
Eight years later, on Sept. 18, 2013, Brazil’s Supreme Court voted 6-5 in favor of allowing retrials for officials convicted in the scandal. In a country where political wrongdoing is high, the case attracted much attention and media coverage to see if those found guilty would, in the end, be held accountable.
Rulings from the retrial could keep political leaders like José Dirceu and Delúbio Soares from going to jail, a major setback to holding officials responsible for corruption.
The Mensalão trial is considered the largest political corruption scandal in Brazilian history. It’s viewed by legal experts as a landmark case in which, for the first time, high-ranking politicians were found guilty in a criminal trial and sentenced to prison terms for corruption charges.
Broadcasted by the major TV stations in the country, the case was watched by almost 200 million Brazilians who were expecting the country's long history of impunity to end. Routine in Brazilian politics, the trial highlighted some of the inherent weaknesses in Brazil’s multi-party democracy, where parties use private funding in very competitive elections.
However, some political analysts question whether the case will change the culture of corruption plaguing the country. The scandal broke in 2005 during the first term of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Despite the association, he was easily reelected in 2006, still a popular figure in the Brazilian political and social scene.
In the 2012 municipal elections, the trial didn’t prevent the Workers' Party (called ‘Partido dos Trabalhadores’ in Portuguese) candidate from winning the post of mayor of São Paulo, Brazil's largest city and a traditional opposition stronghold.
While broadly condemned by the Brazilian population, impunity is nevertheless expected. A survey by the Folha de São Paulo's DataFolha in 2012, when the trial started, showed that 73 percent of Brazilians believe Mensalão defendants should go behind bars, even though only 11 per cent of those examined expect a penalty.
By Christine Coester and Marina Lemos Demartini.