Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023 on March 4, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. (PHOTO / AP)
BRASILIA – Brazil's far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro, who never conceded defeat in last year's election, returns from self-imposed exile in Florida on Thursday to lead the opposition to leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Thousands of supporters are expected to welcome him at Brasilia's airport when he arrives around 7 am (1000 GMT) from Orlando. Authorities have beef up security, closing traffic along the capital mall to prevent the risk of violent protests.
Before boarding a plane in Orlando, Bolsonaro played down his leadership role and said he will use his experience to help his party, the Liberal Party, campaign in local elections, adding that the October vote he lost was a closed chapter.
"We have turned a page, and now we will prepare for next year's election," he told CNN Brasil.
Bolsonaro left for the United States two days before he was due to hand over the presidential sash to Lula on Jan 1. He said he needed rest, but critics say he was avoiding the risks of over a dozen legal investigations he may face in Brazil.
Legal probes have focused on his attacks against Brazil's voting system and alleged role in encouraging supporters to storm government buildings in Jan 8 riots that recalled the 2021 assault on the US Capitol.
Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro's return to Brazil is eagerly awaited by the Liberal Party's leader Valdemar Costa Neto, who wants Bolsonaro to become the leader of the opposition to the Lula administration and lead the PL into municipal elections next year
Bolsonaro, who holds former US president Donald Trump as his political idol, attended the Conservative Political Action Conference this month in Washington where he questioned the result of the October election narrowly won by Lula and said his mission in Brazil was "still not over."
The 68-year-old populist will head from the airport to the headquarters of the conservative Liberal Party (PL), which became the largest in Brazil's Congress riding Bolsonaro's coattails in the last election.
His return to Brazil is eagerly awaited by the party's leader Valdemar Costa Neto, who wants Bolsonaro to become the leader of the opposition to the Lula administration and lead the PL into municipal elections next year.
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Costa Neto has said Bolsonaro was losing political capital by staying in Florida and expects his party to triple its slate of elected mayors across Brazil with the help of the former president, who can draw crowds by firing up anti-Lula sentiment.
"Bolsonaro will lead the opposition and travel around Brazil preaching the party's liberal values and helping the PL grow," he told Reuters, outlining a plan for a right-wing comeback in the 2026 presidential elections.
Mobilizing the 58 million voters who backed him last year will not be an easy task for the former army captain, according to political analysts. Plenty of potential rivals on the right have the advantage of holding public office in coming years.
"If Bolsonaro cannot quickly show that he can lead, the right will look for other leaders, like the governors of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais," said Andre Cesar at Hold Legislative Advisors, a public policy consultancy.
Bolsonaro has also hurt his standing with many center-right parties after the Jan 8 riots by his supporters and probes into his attacks on Brazil's democracy, said Leonardo Barreto at Vector Consultancy in Brasilia.
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His reputation as an anti-corruption crusader has been marred by an alleged attempt to receive gifts of jewelry from the king of Saudi Arabia valued at $3.2 million that were seized by customs officials in 2021 because they had not been declared.
Bolsonaro must also calibrate his plans with the popularity of his wife Michelle, who is emerging as a charismatic figure running PL outreach to women. Barreto said her ambitions may provide an outlet for the ex-president's supporters if legal probes lead electoral authorities bar him from seeking office.