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Mar 29, 2023
Bolsonaro Returns to Brazil to Take on Lula as Opposition Leader
(Bloomberg) -- After three months of vacation in Florida, Jair Bolsonaro is finally returning to Brazil on Thursday to assume the role of opposition leader and challenge the leftist government of his foe Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The right-wing movements Bolsonaro inspired have eagerly awaited his return, and some of his backers were heading toward the nation’s capital ahead of his arrival, according to the federal highway police. Allies expect the former president, who narrowly lost reelection last year, to rally both his base in congress and supporters across the country, providing a jolt to opposition efforts just as problems mount for Lula’s administration.
But the homecoming also carries risks for the 68-year-old Bolsonaro, who faces a wave of lawsuits and court investigations, including a probe into his alleged involvement in the Jan. 8 insurrection attempt in Brasilia by right-wing groups that refused to accept his defeat in the October vote.
Bolsonaro is also facing scrutiny over $3 million worth of jewelry that one of his allies attempted to bring into Brazil after an official trip to Saudi Arabia while he was still president, and fresh reports this week that he may have attempted to shield other presidential gifts from public view.
His return solves a diplomatic dilemma for both the White House and Lula’s administration. President Joe Biden has faced questions since January over whether the Brazilian leader would be allowed to remain in the US, especially after he applied for a six-month tourist visa. Brazil’s government has also considered its options for a request for Bolsonaro’s extradition, although Lula said such a decision rested with the courts.
Although Bolsonaro still garnered attention from abroad, he will have more power to command the opposition to Lula from home in Brazil, said Nara Pavão, a politics professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco.
“Bolsonaro has tried throughout this self-imposed exile to put himself in a martyr’s position, in order to keep his group united, but his visibility decreased.” Pavão said. “His return will have many consequences, and the first is that it will provide more strength to Bolsonarismo,” she added, using the popular name for his political brand.
Legal concerns aside, the conservative firebrand has insisted throughout his US vacation that he would eventually return to take charge of the movement.
Before boarding his flight Wednesday night in Orlando, where he has been since leaving Brazil two days before the official end of his term, Bolsonaro said he intends to travel throughout the country twice a month to campaign and help his party in next year’s municipal elections.
“The result of the elections was very tight, there was a very strong feeling of indignation in Brazil. I decided to leave to the US,” Bolsonaro told CNN Brasil at the Orlando airport. “I stayed almost three months here practically in silence. I’ve followed everything that has been happening in Brazil and, unfortunately, Brazil is not doing well.”
Read More: Bolsonaro Says Mission Isn’t Over as US Conservatives Fete Him
Bolsonaro is scheduled to land in Brasilia early Thursday morning on a commercial flight. Representatives of his Liberal Party told Bloomberg News they’ve requested the government of the country’s capital to reinforce airport security.
Police were on alert as an undisclosed number of his supporters were taking buses to Brasilia, reviving memories of the security fiasco caused by riots that destroyed major buildings in the capital just one week after Lula’s inauguration.
“There is a movement of buses coming to Brasilia,” said Igor Ramos, superintendent of the highway police in the federal district. “Possible protesters and supporters may be coming.”
Security officials urged Bolsonaro’s supporters to refrain from going to the airport’s halls not to disrupt the flow of passengers going through the busy regional hub. Currently there are no plans to block roads, but tractors or trucks are not authorized to enter key areas of the city, and demonstrators won’t be allowed to camp around the capital either, they said.
While some of his allies initially distanced themselves from Bolsonaro after the shocking riots, the former president is likely to retain considerable influence in congress, which is key to Brazil’s governability.
The Liberal Party won the largest share of seats in the legislature last year, taking 99 of the lower house’s 513 positions. Party leaders see Bolsonaro’s presence as vital to its efforts to elect more than 1,000 mayors in 2024, up from 352 in 2020. The party said it plans to make Bolsonaro its “honorary president” and pay him a salary “like a top court justice” — currently around 42,000 reais ($8,078) per month.
“Naturally, he assumes the role of opposition leader,” lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro said about his father’s strategy in an interview Tuesday. “President Bolsonaro has a national role and I believe he’ll accept the plan of traveling across the entire country.”
At the same time, the former president’s plan to live in Brasilia, just a few miles from the country’s power center, may also help him spearhead a more effective opposition to Lula. Nearly 100 days into his administration, the leftist leader is staring down a growing pile of problems: He faces the possibility of an economic recession, has spent weeks in a protracted fight with the central bank in an effort to lower interest rates, and has yet to test the size of his congressional base before submitting key proposals to change the constitution.
Read More: Faltering Economy Endangers Lula’s ‘Barbecue and Beer’ Promise
But Bolsonaro’s return could also reinforce sharp political divides in a way that may help Lula, especially among more moderate Brazilians, Pavão said.
“Much of the support that Lula got in the election came from the rejection of Bolsonaro,” she said.
Once established in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s allies expect him to begin touring the country, staging the kind of motorcycle parades that became a hallmark of his 2022 campaign. Michelle Bolsonaro is also organizing rallies throughout Brazil and considering a potential run if electoral judges rule her husband ineligible to run as a candidate again as a result of his legal troubles, according to two people familiar with the plan.
“He has all the conditions to oppose the current government in order to ensure his return in 2026, if he wants to,” Hamilton Mourao, vice president under Bolsonaro’s government and now a senator, said in an interview.
(Updates with Bolsonaro’s comments before boarding the plane from ninth paragraph.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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