Bloomberg — After three months of vacation in Florida, Jair Bolsonaro is expected to finally return to Brazil on Thursday to assume the role of opposition leader and challenge the leftist government of his foe Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
The right-wing movements Bolsonaro inspired have eagerly awaited the return of the former president, who narrowly lost reelection despite earning more than 58 million votes last year. Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party expects him to rally both allies in congress and supporters across the country, providing a jolt to opposition efforts just as problems mount for 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.
Bolsonaro is also facing scrutiny over $3 million worth of jewelry 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.
Although Bolsonaro still garnered attention from abroad, he will have more power to command the opposition to Lula from home in Brazil, said 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,” Pavão said. “But his visibility decreased.”
“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% of the lower house and senate seats, and we’re going to discuss what our strategy is.”
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 to prepare for his arrival.
While some of his allies initially distanced themselves from Bolsonaro after the shocking riots that caused rampant destruction of major buildings in Brasilia, the former president is likely to retain considerable influence in congress, which is key to Brazil’s governability.
The Liberal Party won the largest share of seats in the legislature last year, taking 99 of the lower house’s 513 positions. Party leaders see Bolsonaro’s presence as vital to its efforts to elect more than 1,000 mayors in 2024, up from 352 in 2020. The party said it plans to make Bolsonaro its “honorary president” and pay him a salary “like a top court justice” — currently around 42,000 reais ($8,078) per month.
“Naturally, he assumes the role of opposition leader,” lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro said about his father’s strategy in an interview Tuesday. “President Bolsonaro has a national role and I believe he’ll accept the plan of traveling across the entire country.”
The end of Bolsonaro’s Florida stay will also solve a diplomatic dilemma for both the White House and 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 Bolsonaro’s extradition, although Lula said such a decision rested with the courts.
At the same time, the former president’s plan to live in Brasilia, just a few miles from the country’s power center, may also help him spearhead a more effective opposition to Lula. Nearly 100 days into his administration, the leftist leader is staring down a growing pile of problems: He faces the possibility of an economic recession, has spent weeks in a protracted fight with the central bank in an effort to lower interest rates, and has yet to test the size of his congressional base before submitting key proposals to change the constitution.
But Bolsonaro’s return could also reinforce sharp political divides in a way that may help Lula, especially among more moderate Brazilians, Pavão said.
“Much of the support that Lula got in the election came from the rejection of Bolsonaro,” she said.
Once established in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s allies expect him to begin touring the country, staging the kind of motorcycle parades that became a hallmark of his 2022 campaign. Michelle Bolsonaro is also organizing rallies throughout Brazil and considering a potential run if electoral judges rule her husband ineligible to run as a candidate again as a result of his legal troubles, according to two people familiar with the plan.
“He has all the conditions to oppose the current government in order to ensure his return in 2026, if he wants to,” Hamilton Mourao, vice president under Bolsonaro’s government and now a senator, said in an interview.
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