BRASILIA: 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 reenter politics—complicating life for his successor and nemesis, Luiz Inacio 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.

Scores of supporters waving the Brazilian flag—one of Bolsonaro’s symbols—were at the airport arrival area to welcome him, shouting and singing the national anthem, despite authorities’ moves to block a planned welcome rally. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. We’ve been looking forward to it since January 1,” Eva Melgaco, a 46-year-old beautician, told AFP.

However, Bolsonaro left discreetly through another exit. Flashing a thumbs-up to TV cameras, he entered a motorcade that headed for the headquarters of his Liberal Party (PL), flanked by police cars. 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 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.

Tension was high in Brasilia, where the exuberant crowd of around 200 supporters at the airport was guarded by a heavy police deployment. Authorities said if necessary they 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.

Bolsonaro, 68, is set to start a new job next week as honorary president of the Liberal Party, earning 41,600 reais (around $8,000) a month. The ex-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,” Bolsonaro told CNN Brasil as he prepared to board his flight. “You don’t have to oppose this government. It creates the opposition by itself.”

Return of the ‘Messiah’

The Liberal Party appeared ready to keep the arrival low-key, saying Bolsonaro would travel from the airport to party headquarters, where his wife, Michelle, party president Valdemar Costa Neto and “other authorities” would be waiting to greet him in a closed-door event. But hardline Bolsonaro backers had made viral calls on social media for supporters to turn out en masse to welcome the man they call “Messiah”—or “Messias,” Bolsonaro’s middle name.

Some supporters called for one of the ex-president’s trademark motorcycle rallies, vowing: “Brasilia will come to a halt.” “Let’s pave the way for Bolsonaro’s return to the presidency,” YouTube star-turned-Congressman Gustavo Gayer said in a video, calling for a massive turnout.

Bolsonaro’s return could reenergize 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 Getulio Vargas Foundation told AFP. “That could make a big difference. Lula will have to govern with a united opposition.”

Legal trouble

But Bolsonaro faces numerous legal woes. They include no less than five Supreme Court investigations that could potentially send him to jail—including for allegedly inciting the January 8 riots—and a recent 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.

Police summoned Bolsonaro Wednesday to give a deposition in the Saudi jewels case on April 5, officials told AFP. 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.

Bolsonaro has admitted he could face trouble. Assessing his odds at a meeting with Brazilian business leaders in the United States earlier this month, he acknowledged he could be declared ineligible to run for office. “But they won’t send me to prison, unless there’s some kind of arbitrary decision,” he said. – AFP