Lula sworn in as president to lead polarized Brazil

Lula sworn in as president to lead polarized Brazil

  • US News
  • January 1, 2023
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BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as president on Sunday, taking office for the third time after thwarting the re-election of far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

His return to power marks the culmination of a political comeback that has both excited supporters and enraged opponents in a deeply polarized nation.

“Our message to Brazil is one of hope and recovery,” Lula said in a speech in the lower house of Congress after signing the document formally installing him as president. “The great edifice of rights, sovereignty and development that this nation has erected has been systematically destroyed in recent years. And in order to rebuild this building, we will focus all our efforts on it.”

On Sunday afternoon, the party was on on the main promenade of Brasilia. Tens of thousands of supporters, dressed in Lula’s Labor Party red, cheered after his inauguration. They also celebrated when the president said he would send a report on Bolsonaro’s presidency to authorities, who could investigate the far-right leader based on their findings.

Lula’s presidency is unlikely to be like his previous two mandates, as he comes after the closest presidential race in Brazil in more than three decades and opposition from some of his opponents to his inauguration, political analysts say.

The left defeated Bolsonaro by less than 2 percentage points in the Oct. 30 vote. Bolsonaro had sowed doubts about the reliability of Brazil’s electronic voting for months, and his staunch supporters were reluctant to accept the loss.

Many have since gathered outside military barracks, questioning the findings and begging the armed forces to prevent Lula from taking office.

His staunchest supporters resorted to what some authorities and new members of Lula’s government have dubbed “acts of terrorism” – something the country had not seen since the early 1980s and which has raised security concerns over events on Inauguration Day.

“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 there is a climate of terror.”

Lula’s mission is to heal the divided nation. But he must do so while navigating tougher economic conditions than in his first two terms, when the global commodity boom proved Brazil’s godsend.

Back then, his government’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 hand-picked successor and then during the pandemic – and ordinary Brazilians suffered greatly.

Lula said his priorities are fighting poverty and investing in education and health. He has also said he will stop illegal logging in the Amazon. He sought support from moderate politicians to form a broad front and defeat Bolsonaro, then brought some of them into his cabinet.

Claúdio Arantes, a 68-year-old retiree, carried an old campaign flag from Lula on his way to the Esplanade. The lifelong Lula supporter attended his inauguration in 2003 and agreed this time felt different.

“Back then he could say that Brazil was united. Now it’s divided and won’t heal anytime soon,” Arantes said. “I trust his intelligence that this administration of national unity will work so that we never have a Bolsonaro again.”

Given the nation’s political fault lines, it’s highly unlikely that Lula will ever regain the popularity he once enjoyed, or that his approval rating will even soar above 50%, said Maurício Santoro, a professor of political science at Rio de Janeiro State University .

In addition, Santoro said, the credibility of Lula and his Labor Party has been undermined by a sprawling corruption investigation. Party officials were jailed, including Lula – until his conviction was overturned on procedural grounds. The Supreme Court then ruled that the judge presiding over the case had worked with prosecutors to secure a conviction.

Lula and his supporters have claimed he was followed by railroad. Others were willing to look past any possible wrongdoing in a bid to unseat Bolsonaro and bring the nation back together.

But Bolsonaro’s supporters refuse to accept anyone they see as a criminal returning to the highest office. And amid tensions simmering, a series of events have raised fears that violence could erupt on Inauguration Day.

On December 12, dozens of people tried to enter a federal police building in Brasilia and set fire to cars and buses in other parts of the city. Then, on Christmas Eve, police arrested a 54-year-old man who admitted making a bomb that was found on a tanker truck heading to Brasilia airport.

He had been camping with hundreds of other Bolsonaro supporters outside the Brasilia army headquarters since November 12. He told police he was ready for the war on communism and planned the attack using people he met at the protests, according to excerpts of his statement released through local media. The next day, police found explosive devices and several bulletproof vests in a wooded area on the outskirts of the federal district.

Lula’s new justice minister, Flávio Dino, this week urged federal authorities to put an end to the “anti-democracy” protests, calling them “terrorist incubators.”

In response to a request from Lula’s team, the current justice minister authorized the deployment of the National Guard until January 2, and Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes banned people in Brasilia from carrying firearms those days.

“This is the fruit of political polarization, political extremism,” said Nara Pavão, who teaches political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco. Pavão stressed that Bolsonaro, who has mostly disappeared from the political scene since losing his re-election bid, has been slow to deny the recent incidents.

“His silence is strategic: Bolsonaro must keep Bolsonarismo alive,” Pavão said.

Bolsonaro finally condemned the bombing in a farewell speech on social media on December 30, hours before he flew to the United States. His absence on Inauguration Day marks a break with tradition, and it remains unclear who will hand over the presidential sash to Lula at the Presidential Palace instead of him.

Lawyer Eduardo Coutinho will be present. He bought a flight to Brasilia as a Christmas present.

“I wish I was here when Bolsonaro’s plane took off, it’s the only thing that makes me almost as happy as tomorrow’s event,” said Coutinho, 28, after singing Lula campaign jingles on the plane. “I don’t usually exaggerate like that, but we have to let it out and that’s exactly why I came here. Brazil needs that to progress.”

AP writer Diane Jeantet contributed from Rio de Janeiro.

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