Ex-president Bolsonaro returns to Brazil to lead opposition against Lula

BRASILIA – After three months of vacation in Florida, Mr Jair Bolsonaro is finally returning to Brazil on Thursday to assume the role of opposition leader and challenge the leftist government of his foe Mr Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The right-wing movements Mr Bolsonaro inspired have eagerly awaited his return, and some of his backers were heading towards 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 Mr 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.

Mr Bolsonaro is also facing scrutiny over US$3 million (S$4 million) worth of jewellery 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 Mr 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 Mr Bolsonaro’s extradition, although Mr Lula said such a decision rested with the courts. 

Although Mr Bolsonaro still garnered attention from abroad, he will have more power to command the opposition to Mr Lula from home in Brazil, said Ms 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.” Ms 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.

“We’re returning to normalcy,” he said in an interview with Brazilian media this week. “I’m going to meet with the party, which has approximately 20 per cent of the lower house and senate seats, and we’re going to discuss what our strategy is.”

Mr Bolsonaro is scheduled to land in Brasilia early Thursday morning on a commercial flight from Orlando, where he has been since leaving Brazil two days before the official end of his term. 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 Mr Lula’s inauguration. 

“There is a movement of buses coming to Brasilia,” said Mr Igor Ramos, superintendent of the highway police in the federal district. “Possible protesters and supporters may be coming.”

Security officials urged Mr Bolsonaro’s supporters to refrain from going to the airport 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. BLOOMBERG

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