Brazil’s far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro has returned to Brazil, where he was greeted by hundreds of supporters at the capital Brasilia’s airport to welcome him back after three months in self-imposed exile.
Supporters with Brazilian flags draped around their shoulders sang the national anthem and chanted “legend” as Bolsonaro arrived from Florida in the United States on Thursday morning.
Bolsonaro, 68, who never conceded defeat in last year’s election, is expected to lead the opposition to leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, officials in his Liberal Party said.
Before boarding a plane in Orlando, Florida, Bolsonaro downplayed his leadership role and said he will use his experience to help his party campaign in next year’s municipal elections, adding that the vote he lost in October is a closed chapter.
“We have turned a page and now we will prepare for next year’s elections,” he told CNN Brasil shortly before boarding.
But “I’m not going to lead any opposition,” he said.
“You don’t have to oppose this government. It creates the opposition by itself.”
The Federal District’s security secretariat mobilised hundreds of police officers and the Esplanade of Ministries was closed to prevent gatherings of Bolsonaro’s supporters. On January 8, Bolsonaro supporters stormed buildings in Brasilia, home to the three branches of government, in an effort to violently overturn the election.
Upon his return, Bolsonaro drove to the headquarters of his Liberal Party in Brasilia, where he met with supporters and members of the country’s conservative opposition.
“He’s come back because there is a popular outcry for his return to Brazil since he’s the only far-right leader in the country right now,” Guilherme Casaroes, a researcher with the Far Right Observatory, told Al Jazeera in a television interview.
“One of the things that Bolsonaro might have considered in his return to Brazil is that if he stayed away for too long, some other politicians could try to fill in the void of political leadership on the right wing.”
Casaroes said that doing so would be difficult given Bolsonaro’s stature on the Brazilian right, and that by returning home to voice opposition to the Lula government Bolsonaro would be “well positioned to run for the 2026 elections”.
While Bolsonaro enjoys support on the Brazilian right, his path to re-election could be complicated by a number of legal challenges. Bolsonaro left for the US two days before he was to hand over the presidential sash to Lula on January 1, stating that he needed rest. But critics say he was avoiding the more than a dozen legal investigations he may face in Brazil.
Legal probes have focused on his alleged role in encouraging supporters to storm government buildings in the January 8 riots.
The former leader is also the subject of a police investigation exploring allegations that staff members in his administration attempted to bring millions of dollars of jewellery into the country without declaring it following a 2021 trip to Saudi Arabia.
Brazil’s electoral courts are looking into his actions during last year’s campaign, particularly related to his unsubstantiated claims that the electronic-voting system is susceptible to fraud. If Bolsonaro is found guilty in any of those cases, he would lose his political rights and be unable to run for office in the next election.
‘I’m not retired’
For the first time in 30 years, the lawmaker-turned-president does not hold elected office.
Bolsonaro, who holds former US President Donald Trump as his political idol, this month attended the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, where he questioned the result of the October election narrowly won by Lula. He said his mission in Brazil is “still not over”.
“I’m without a mandate but I’m not retired,” Bolsonaro told television network Jovem Pan on Monday.
His return to Brazil had been repeatedly delayed, and some had speculated he could postpone indefinitely in light of his legal troubles. Steve Bannon, a longtime ally of Trump and considered a strategist of the global far right, told Brazilian newspaper Folha de SPaulo this week that Bolsonaro never should have left the country, and dismissed the importance of the investigations.
Now that Bolsonaro has returned, his first objective will be to rally opposition to Lula’s government, said Mayra Goulart da Silva, a political scientist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
“Bolsonaro decided to return to Brazil because no clear opposition leader to the government has emerged,” da Silva said.