BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Former President Jair Bolsonaro returned Thursday to Brazil after a three-month stint in Florida following his election loss, and the right-wing populist told supporters he doesn’t think leftists will be in power in Brazil for long.
Bolsonaro, who is the subject of several investigations that could stymie any attempts at a political comeback, arrived in a capital under tight security. Authorities sought to avoid any repeat of Jan. 8 events when supporters who didn’t accept his defeat stormed government buildings. Police in Brasilia blocked the main artery to those buildings.
Hundreds of supporters dressed in Brazil's national colors of yellow and green chanted for Bolsonaro as they awaited his arrival, but his return did not draw the huge crowds many of his allies had expected. That appeared to please his opponents; current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's minister of institutional relations, Alexandre Padilha, called the reception a “flop.”
The former president said in his first speech after touching down that his leftist successor and his allies “will not do whatever they want to the fate of our nation,” and added that the left will only keep power “for now, for a little while.”
Speaking in front of a banner that read “today Brazil woke up stronger,” Bolsonaro said he would spend as much time as necessary at the headquarters of his Liberal Party to help the campaign for next year’s municipal races when the country elects 5,500 mayors nationwide.
Bolsonaro left Brazil just before the end of his presidential term. In so doing, he broke with tradition by declining to hand the presidential sash to his successor, Lula, who won the October election with the narrowest finish since Brazil’s return to democracy over three decades earlier.
While in the U.S., Bolsonaro mostly kept a low profile, although he delivered several speeches to Brazilian expats and conservatives, including at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
The Brazilian leader said his three months in Florida had helped give him a vision for the future. "Everything we saw there is what we want to implement here. The most important thing is liberty.”
For the first time in three decades, the lawmaker-turned-president does not hold elected office.
“I am coming here in the position of an elder, an experienced person who will be consulted by whomever wishes. I will give opinions,” Bolsonaro said.
Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said Bolsonaro had to return to confront his many legal problems, and to fend off rivals who might claim his role as leader of the right. But the new political landscape will pose a challenge, Melo said.
"It is hard for him to lead the opposition, because his career was as an outsider,” Melo said. “Now, he isn't an outsider and he isn't president. He will have to build a new path.”
The hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters who gathered at Brasilia International Airport early Thursday did not not get to see the far-right leader come out the main exit and instead gathered outside his Liberal Party’s headquarters. The former president was welcomed at the airport by his son, Sen. Flávio Bolsonaro, and Liberal Party chairman Valdemar da Costa Neto.
“Bolsonaro was the best president we’ve ever had, I had never seen an administration like his,” said Marinalva Wanderley, 71, who brought five members of her family from Sao Paulo to the Liberal Party’s headquarters. “I think he was in the U.S. with Donald Trump to see what is best for Brazil and the U.S. We will have a much bigger opposition (to Lula), that’s for sure."
Bolsonaro’s statements will make headlines and his loyal following will turn out for public appearances, but the immediate political impact for Lula’s administration appears limited, Christopher Garman, managing director at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a report.
“I noticed he was more balanced today,” lawmaker Sóstenes Cavalcante, coordinator of Congress’ evangelical caucus and a Bolsonaro ally, said by phone. “I believe he will stay quiet and let Lula make mistakes on his own.”
In next year’s municipal elections, Bolsonaro is expected to throw his support behind his Liberal Party’s mayoral candidates who, if victorious, can then use their stature to stump for him or his chosen standard-bearer. The party will begin setting up trips across the country for Bolsonaro and his wife, Michelle, who is coordinating party outreach to female voters.
“His party understands that being away will do little to mitigate his legal woes and that he should be home to start playing the role of the leading opposition voice,” Garman wrote.
Bolsonaro is the subject of a series of investigations, including whether he incited the Jan. 8 uprising. Recent revelations by newspaper Estado de S.Paulo regarding three boxes of expensive jewelry allegedly brought to Bolsonaro from Saudi Arabia have exposed the former president to greater legal jeopardy.
In addition to probes into the diamonds, there are about a dozen investigations by Brazil’s electoral courts 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.
On Thursday, the former president denied any wrongdoing regarding the jewels. “I didn't hide anything," he said.
Hughes reported from Rio de Janeiro and Bridi reported from Brasilia.
AP journalist Mauricio Savarese contributed to this report from Sao Paulo.