Bolsonaro returns to Brazil, vowing Lula's days are numbered

At a glance

  • Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters from a window at the Liberal Party headquarters of n Brasilia on March 30, 2023. Disconsolate over his "unjust" defeat in Brazil's divisive 2022 elections, (EVARISTO SA / AFP)

BRASILIA, Brazil – Ex-president Jair Bolsonaro returned home to Brazil Thursday from three months of self-imposed exile in the United States, vowing to be a fierce opponent to his successor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

The far-right ex-army captain, who skipped town in the final hours of his term after losing a divisive election to veteran leftist Lula, arrived back in Brasilia on a commercial flight from Orlando, Florida.

Bolsonaro, 68, then headed to the headquarters of his Liberal Party (PL) in a motorcade flanked by police -- whose role appeared to be not just protecting the ex-president, but keeping him away from cheering supporters who wanted him to defy local authorities' appeals for calm and lead one of his trademark motorcycle rallies.

The homecoming is a high-stakes bet for Bolsonaro, who faces legal trouble on various fronts in Brazil -- notably for his alleged role in inciting supporters who invaded the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court on January 8 in a failed bid to oust Lula.

The former president, whose administration lasted from 2019-2022, kept his arrival low-key in line with Brasilia authorities' wishes.

He exited the airport without approaching the exuberant crowd of around 200 supporters who had gathered to greet him while shouting, chanting and singing, decked out in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag.

Bolsonaro looked more relaxed at PL headquarters, where he shook hands and backslapped party leaders before making a speech.

"The people in power right now -- and they won't be for long -- can't just do whatever they want with our future," he said.

"We're the majority (in Congress), and we want what's best for the country."

Bolsonaro is set to start a new job next week as honorary president of the party, earning 41,600 reais (around $8,000) a month.

The ex-president, who recently rented a house in a gated community in Brasilia, has said he plans to criss cross Brazil "doing politics" and "upholding the banner of conservatism."

But "I'm not going to lead any opposition," he told CNN Brasil Wednesday.

"You don't have to oppose this government. It creates the opposition by itself."

Return of the 'Messiah'
Die-hard Bolsonaro fan Katia Lima Araujo said she had arrived at PL headquarters at 4:00 am to welcome the man supporters call "Messiah" -- or "Messias," Bolsonaro's middle name.

"I didn't even sleep. I couldn't -- I just want to see the president. I'm very happy he's back," the 63-year-old civil servant told AFP.

There, Bolsonaro also reunited with his wife, Michelle, a telegenic Evangelical Christian who has herself been touted as a potential presidential candidate, and who returned to Brazil before him to take up a job as leader of the PL women's wing.

Bolsonaro, who never explicitly conceded defeat after the October 2022 election, instead holing up in the presidential palace in silence, had a peculiar sojourn in Florida.

He stayed in the home of a Brazilian ex-mixed martial arts champion near Disney World, and was photographed meandering the aisles of a local supermarket and eating fried chicken alone at a KFC fast-food restaurant.

He said he had been "reinvigorated" by his stay in the land of his political role model, former US president Donald Trump.

Supporters hope his return will now reinvigorate the opposition, which has been weakened by Bolsonaro's self-imposed exile and widespread backlash to the violence and destruction of the January 8 riots.

"We've had five months of a basically dismantled opposition. Now, Bolsonaro's return to Brazil looks set to unite the right," political analyst Jairo Nicolau of the Getulio Vargas Foundation told AFP.

Legal trouble
But Bolsonaro faces numerous legal woes.

They include no less than five Supreme Court investigations that could send him to jail, including for allegedly inciting the Brasilia riots.

And he has been swept up in a scandal over allegations he tried to illegally import and keep millions of dollars' worth of jewelry given to him and his wife by Saudi Arabia in 2019.

He also faces 16 cases before Brazil's Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which could strip him of his right to run for office for eight years, taking him out of the 2026 presidential race.