Three months after leaving for the United States in the final hours of his term, Brazil's ex-president Jair Bolsonaro returned home Thursday to re-enter domestic politics – complicating life for his successor and nemesis, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The far-right ex-Army captain, who skipped town two days before Lula's inauguration on January 1, arrived back in Brasilia on a commercial flight from Orlando, Florida, then headed to the headquarters of his Liberal Party (PL), flashing a thumbs-up as his motorcade pulled away.
After warnings from authorities that they would not allow a large rally for security and transport reasons, Bolsonaro made a discreet exit from the airport, without approaching the exuberant, tightly guarded crowd of around 200 flag-waving supporters gathered to greet him.
The homecoming is a high-stakes bet for Bolsonaro, 68, who faces legal trouble on various fronts in Brazil – notably for his alleged role in inciting supporters who invaded the halls of power on January 8 in a failed bid to oust Lula, the veteran leftist who beat him in a divisive election in October.
Bolsonaro is set to start a new job next week as honorary president of the Liberal Party, earning 41,600 reais (around US$8,000) a month.
The former president (2019-2022), 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 as he prepared to board his flight Wednesday night. "You don't have to oppose this government. It creates the opposition by itself."
Return of the 'Messiah'
Looking relaxed in a black windbreaker, Bolsonaro shook hands and back-slapped with PL leaders at party headquarters in a video released by their communications team.
He 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.
The ex-president briefly appeared at a window to wave to supporters decked out in the yellow and green of Brazil's flag, which Bolsonaro has made one of his symbols.
But it was not the massive rally that supporters had called for on social media, complete with one of their trademark motorcycle rallies for the man they call "Messiah" – or "Messias," Bolsonaro's middle name.
Local authorities had warned they would block any rallies, and were prepared to lock down the central plaza that is home to the presidential palace, Congress and the Supreme Court, where Bolsonaro backers rioted on January 8.
The message did not stop die-hard fan Katia Lima Araujo from arriving at PL headquarters at 4:00 am.
"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.
Bolsonaro's return could re-energise the opposition, which has been weakened by his self-imposed exile and the 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 Getúlio Vargas Foundation told AFP. "That could make a big difference. Lula will have to govern with a united opposition."
Bolsonaro faces numerous legal woes. They include no less than five Supreme Court investigations that could send him to jail, including for inciting the Brasilia riots.
He has also 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.
by Florence Goisnard & Marcelo Silva De Sousa, AFP