© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Jair Bolsonaro, former President of Brazil, arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., March 4, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein//File Photo
By Anthony Boadle and Ricardo Brito
BRASILIA (Reuters) -Brazil’s far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro returned from three months in the United States on Thursday and was welcomed back by hundreds of chanting supporters at the Brasilia airport before heading straight into meetings with his political party.
The turnout was considerably smaller than expected by police, and a minister in leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula’s cabinet called the reception a “flop” that showed his weak leadership.
Bolsonaro, who never formally conceded defeat in last year’s election, has vowed to lead the opposition to Lula’s government, raising the stakes for the new administration after a highly polarized election.
Supporters with Brazil flags draped around their shoulders sang the national anthem and chanted “legend” at the arrivals area of the airport amid tight security.
The 68-year-old former president in a live webcast from the headquarters of his Liberal Party said conservatives controlled Congress and Lula’s minority government would not be able “to do what it liked with the future of our country.”
Bolsonaro defended himself from accusations he tried to keep jewelry from the King of Saudi Arabia worth $3.2 million without declaring the gift, a scandal that has tarnished his claim to be an incorruptible politician.
Bolsonaro left for the United States two days before he was due to hand over the presidential sash to Lula on Jan. 1. He said he needed rest but critics say he was avoiding the risks of over a dozen legal investigations he may face 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 U.S. Capitol.
Bolsonaro in his webcast said the riots were spontaneous and denied they had been planned, as his critics maintain, as an attempt to provoke a military coup against Lula.
Bolsonaro, who holds former U.S. President Donald Trump as his political idol, attended the Conservative Political Action Conference this month in Washington where he questioned the result of the October election narrowly won by Lula and said his mission in Brazil was “still not over.”
His return to Brazil has been eagerly awaited by PL leader Valdemar Costa Neto, who wants Bolsonaro to lead the party into municipal elections next year.
Costa Neto has said that Bolsonaro was losing political capital by staying in Florida and expects his 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 … 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 will not be an easy task for the former army captain, according to political analysts. Plenty of potential rivals on the right will 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 at Hold Legislative Advisors, a public policy consultancy.
Bolsonaro has also hurt his standing with many center-right parties after the Jan. 8 riots and probes into his attacks on Brazil’s democratic institutions, said Leonardo Barreto at Vector Consultancy in Brasilia.
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 may provide an outlet for the ex-president’s supporters if legal probes lead electoral authorities bar him from seeking office.
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