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On the covers on magazine stands in Brazil, it's billed as the "Day of Reckoning," the "Showdown," the moment when the great rivals meet "Face to Face at Last." Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will testify Wednesday afternoon in the courtroom of Sergio Moro, a federal court judge who has become a cult hero to many citizens for his relentless pursuit of corruption cases. It promises to be the most dramatic political moment in Brazil since the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff last August.

The magazine covers make a telling juxtaposition, Lula (as Mr. da Silva is known) versus the judge, because in theory it's the former president versus prosecutors, who allege that he received in-kind services worth $1.6-million from a construction company in exchange for two contracts with oil refineries at the state petroleum company, Petrobras. But in the Brazilian judicial system, a judge supervises a prosecution, then hears the case – and Justice Moro has overseen the vast corruption case known as Lava Jato since its inception.

Mr. da Silva's testimony will concern renovations to an apartment in a small beach town south of Sao Paulo and storage services for gifts he received while president, both of which he allegedly received for free. But behind these banal charges are high stakes for Brazil. Mr. da Silva says he intends to run again for president next year, and polls show he is the most popular candidate. If he is convicted by Justice Moro (and that conviction is upheld on appeal) before the elections, he will be barred from running.

Read more: Fresh round of corruption allegations rocks Brazil's political establishment

In this deeply polarized country, the potential return to power of Mr. da Silva and his Workers' Party (PT) is seen by some to promise a renewed focus on the concerns of the poor – by others, a return to the leftist economic policies that led the country into a vicious recession and a potential quashing of corruption investigations.

Justice Moro sits in Curitiba, a usually quiet town in the south that has begun to fill up with thousands of Lula supporters, bused in by the PT from across the country. At the same time, there is a small, permanent encampment of fans of Justice Moro on the sidewalk near the courthouse, and others are expected to join them. Residents are braced for clashes. An enterprising few have rented out their balconies to the media crews that are also descending in droves.

"This process isn't a war, it isn't a battle, it's not a [gladiator's] arena," Justice Moro said at a legal conference Tuesday. "In truth, the parties in the process are the prosecution and the defence, not the judge."

But Justice Moro, 44, has been criticized for his handling of Lava Jato. A workaholic model of rectitude who often dresses all in black, he frequently gives speeches about the prosecution and released a video addressing his supporters, asking them to stay away from the trial.

"He has put himself in a position that people are going to suspect his impartiality because of his public appearances," said Thiago Bottino, a professor of criminal law at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio. "Every place he goes, people applaud him, take pictures of him, and it's very hard for a human being not to be contaminated with this hero aura that people want to put on him."

As Lava Jato has unravelled the threads of a giant scam over more than three years, from a relatively small money-laundering case to one that ensnares virtually the entire political elite of the country (a third of Brazil's cabinet ministers, a third of its senators and more than a hundred members of the lower house of Congress have been indicted or are under investigation), it has become clear that Justice Moro wants not just individual convictions but to pursue systematic corruption to the top of the political chain. As such, Mr. da Silva, still the most politically powerful person in the country, is his inevitable prize.

The former president is also facing charges in three other corruption cases, as well as charges of obstructing justice related to the Lava Jato investigation.

Mr. da Silva, 71, grew up one of 17 children in a desperately poor family in the rural northeast. He stayed in school only until the fifth grade and worked as a lathe operator in a factory before becoming a union leader. When he finally won the presidency in 2002, on his fourth attempt, he was a political leader unlike any Brazil had ever seen. In his two terms in office, he oversaw an unprecedented economic boom and the country's first real experiment with wealth redistribution. Some 40 million people moved out of poverty into a new middle class, and Brazil's level of inequality shrank for the first time ever.

Those achievements inevitably colour the perception of this trial, said Maria Herminia Tavares de Almeida, a political scientist at the University of Sao Paulo. "This is a very poor and unequal society … so I can understand why someone would have the perception that Lula is a man being prosecuted for 'having done good things for us.' The PT explanation is that this is an attempt by the elites to regain control. I don't think it is, but I think it's reasonable to understand the process in that way."

That perception got a boost late Tuesday night when another federal judge suspended the operations of Mr. da Silva's charitable foundation, Instituto Lula, saying it was being used as a front for political activities and that criminal activity had likely occurred there.

Mr. da Silva's once astronomical popularity has been tarnished by the corruption allegations, Prof. de Almeida said, but even then, "many people say, 'All politicians are corrupt, but he has done good things,'" so he has not been hurt as much as one might expect by the months of revelations from plea bargains that he allegedly oversaw a vast swap of contracts for donations to the PT.

In the courtroom, the former president needs to maintain the victim narrative his defence has built, she said, but Justice Moro has an image he wants to convey, too. "Lava Jato, despite being a very popular process, has faced accusations of going beyond the law – and I think they actually have, in some instances – so for Moro and his group it's an important moment to show that they are not part of a conspiracy, they are just trying to follow the rule of law."

Mr. da Silva's supporters argue that he cannot receive a fair trial in the court of Justice Moro, and Prof. Bottino said it's a reasonable argument. "Not because it's a process directed to convict him – I don't believe Justice Moro has a political agenda," he said. "But a fair trial needs a fair environment. Here you have magazine covers showing them as boxers … as adversaries. … Obviously the judge will always be right – that's how we think of judges."

Mr. da Silva's defence team has called 86 witnesses to testify on his behalf. The first round of the next election is Oct. 7, 2018. In the Brazilian judicial system, an appeal often takes a year to be heard. The timeline creates a new problem for the judge, said Prof. Bottino: "If he doesn't [get this case finished] soon, everyone will criticize him, saying that he allowed Lula to become president. And if he rushes, he will be criticized because he is rushing."