Right-wing former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who never conceded defeat in last year’s election, yesterday returned from self-imposed exile in Florida to lead the opposition to leftist Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Thousands of supporters were expected to welcome him at Brasilia’s airport on his arrival from Orlando. Brazilian authorities increased security, closing traffic along the capital mall to prevent the risk of violent protests.
Before boarding a plane in Orlando, Bolsonaro played down his leadership role and said he would use his experience to help the Liberal Party (PL) campaign in local elections, adding that the vote he lost in October last year was a closed chapter.
“We have turned a page, and now we will prepare for next year’s election,” he said.
Bolsonaro left for the US two days before he was due to hand over the presidential sash to Lula on Jan. 1.
He said he needed rest, but critics said he was avoiding the risk of more than a dozen legal investigations in Brazil.
Legal probes have focused on his attacks against Brazil’s voting system and alleged role in encouraging supporters to storm government buildings in Jan. 8 riots that recalled the 2021 assault on the US Capitol in Washington.
Bolsonaro, who holds former US president Donald Trump as his political idol, attended the Conservative Political Action Conference this month in Fort Washington, Maryland, where he questioned the result of last year’s election narrowly won by Lula and said his mission in Brazil was “still not over.”
The 68-year-old populist was to head from the airport to the headquarters of the conservative PL, which became the largest in the Brazilian Congress riding Bolsonaro’s coattails in the last election.
His return to Brazil is eagerly awaited by Liberal Party Chairman Valdemar Costa Neto, who wants Bolsonaro to become the leader of the opposition to the Lula administration and lead the PL into municipal elections next year.
Bolsonaro was losing political capital by staying in Florida, Costa Neto said, adding that he expects the party to triple its slate of elected mayors across Brazil with the help of the former president, who can draw crowds by firing up anti-Lula sentiment.
“Bolsonaro will lead the opposition and travel around Brazil preaching the party’s liberal values and helping the PL grow,” he told Reuters, outlining a plan for a right-wing comeback in the 2026 presidential elections.
Mobilizing the 58 million voters who backed him last year would not be an easy task for the former army captain, political analysts have said.
Plenty of potential rivals on the right have the advantage of holding public office in coming years.
“If Bolsonaro cannot quickly show that he can lead, the right will look for other leaders, like the governors of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais,” said Andre Cesar from public policy consultancy Hold Legislative Advisors.
Bolsonaro has also hurt his standing with many center-right parties after the Jan. 8 riots by his supporters and probes into his attacks on Brazil’s democracy, said Leonardo Barreto from Vector Consultancy in Brasilia.
His reputation as a crusader for anti-corruption has been marred by an alleged attempt to receive gifts of jewelry from the king of Saudi Arabia valued at US$3.2 million that were seized by customs officials in 2021 because they had not been declared.
Bolsonaro must also calibrate his plans with the popularity of his wife, Michelle, who is emerging as a charismatic figure running PL outreach to women. Barreto said her ambitions could provide an outlet for the former president’s supporters if legal probes lead electoral authorities to bar him from seeking office.
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