Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been sworn in as president in the capital, Brasilia, assuming office for the third time after thwarting outgoing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro’s reelection bid.
Lula was president from 2003-2010, and his return to power marks the culmination of a political comeback that is both thrilling supporters and enraging opponents in a fiercely polarised nation.
His presidency is unlikely to be similar to his previous two mandates, coming after the tightest presidential race in more than three decades in Brazil and resistance to his taking office by some of his opponents.
The leftist defeated far-right Bolsonaro in the 30 October vote by less than 2 percentage points. For months, Bolsonaro had sown doubts about the reliability of Brazil’s electronic vote and his loyal supporters were loath to accept the loss.
Bolsonaro skipped the inauguration, and is believed to have taken a military jet to Florida at the end of December. Bolsonaro has remained mostly silent since losing the election. But a few hours before reports of his departure, he addressed the country as president on his social media.
At times on the verge of tears, the far-right politician said he wasn’t able to find a legal alternative or enough support to change the course of history and prevent his departure from office.
Supporters flood into capital ahead of ceremony
Early Sunday afternoon, the party was already on. People wearing the red of Lula's Workers' Party flooded into the main esplanade to hear live music and await the start of official events. They chanted Lula's name and belted out the lyrics of a song that informs outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro it is time for him to leave.
“In 2003, the ceremony was very beautiful. There wasn’t this bad, heavy climate,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, referring to the year Lula first took office. “Today, it’s a climate of terror.”
Lula has made it his mission to heal the divided nation. But he will have to do so while navigating more challenging economic conditions than he enjoyed in his first two terms, when the global commodities boom proved a windfall for Brazil.
At the time, his administration's flagship welfare program helped lift tens of millions of impoverished people into the middle class. Many Brazilians traveled abroad for the first time. He left office with a personal approval rating of 83%.
In the intervening years, Brazil’s economy plunged into two deep recessions -- first, during the tenure of his handpicked successor, and then during the pandemic -- and ordinary Brazilians suffered greatly.
Lula has said his priorities are fighting poverty, and investing in education and health. He has also said he will bring illegal deforestation of the Amazon to a halt. He sought support from political moderates to form a broad front and defeat Bolsonaro, then tapped some of them to serve in his Cabinet.
Given the nation’s political fault lines, it is highly unlikely Lula ever reattains the popularity he once enjoyed, or even sees his approval rating rise above 50%, said Maurício Santoro, a political science professor at Rio de Janeiro’s State University.
Furthermore, Santoro said, the credibility of Lula and his Workers’ Party were assailed by a sprawling corruption investigation. Party officials were jailed, including Lula -- until his convictions were annulled on procedural grounds.
The Supreme Court then ruled that the judge presiding over the case had colluded with prosecutors to secure a conviction.
Lula and his supporters have maintained he was railroaded. Others were willing to look past possible malfeasance as a means to unseat Bolsonaro and bring the nation back together.