Jair Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative era of environmental destruction and international isolation is over after Brazil’s far-right president flew out of the country’s capital, Brasília, ahead of the inauguration of his leftist successor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In a tearful final broadcast to supporters, the radical populist effectively admitted that he lacked the support to overturn the result of an election he refused to concede and sought to justify his tumultuous four-year reign during which the coronavirus pandemic killed nearly 700,000 citizens. and Amazon deforestation soared.
“I’m certain that I gave it my best,” said the misty-eyed populist, whose electoral fate was sealed by a broad Lula-led pro-democracy coalition whose members argued the dictatorship-admiring president was a real danger to Brazil’s youth democracy.
Amid fears that armed rightwing extremists might target Lula or his supporters during Sunday’s swearing-in celebrations, Bolsonaro cautioned followers not to go for “all or nothing” and urged them to keep faith in the future. “Battles are lost but we will not lose the war,” he insisted. “I believe in Brazil and above all I believe in God. We have a great future ahead of us.”
Recent weeks have seen gangs of enraged Bolsonaristas – among them evangelical preachers and Amazon miners and businessmen – riot in Brasília, torching vehicles and trying to storm a police headquarters. One extremist was arrested over an alleged plot to bomb the airport on the day of Lula’s inauguration.
Minutes after Bolsonaro’s 50-minute farewell broadcast, it was reported that he would fly to Orlando, Florida, and planned to spend at least a month in the United States with his family.
It was unclear if or when the 67-year-old politician, whose shock 2018 election ushered in one of the most turbulent and peculiar chapters in Brazil’s political history, would return.
The Brazilian newspaper O Globo said he had left the presidential residence through a side door in order to avoid the press.
As Bolsonaro left Brasília on an air force plane at just after 2pm local time, hundreds of thousands of Lula supporters were arriving in the same city for Sunday’s “festival of the future” at which some of Brazil’s biggest pop stars and sambistas will perform.
Elated passengers on the Guardian’s flight from Rio broke into song as their aircraft touched down in architect Oscar Niemeyer’s purpose-built metropolis. “Olê, olê, olê, olá! Lula! Lula!” they chanted before launching into an anti-Bolsonaro anthem that became Spotify’s most listened-to track after Lula’s October 30 victory.
“It’s time for Jair to go!” It’s time for Jair to go! Pack your bags and hit the road!” the group sang, waving their hands in the air.
As she stepped off the plane in a white T-shirt emblazoned with Lula’s name, Roberta Oliveira said she was thrilled about the start of a new political era.
“I am a person who believes in democracy, an inclusive state and citizenship – and Lula represents precisely this,” said the 58-year-old public health researcher.
After being informed that Bolsonaro’s Airbus A319 was about to take off nearby, Oliveira replied: “I’m really happy – but he must pay for what he did … to this country. We didn’t deserve it.”
News of Bolsonaro’s flight to Florida sparked jubilation and relief among millions of opponents, who blame him for a 60% rise in Amazon deforestation, bungling one of the world’s worst Covid-19 outbreaks, flooding the country with guns and dividing society with his radical rhetoric .
But there was also a sober acceptance of the possibility that Bolsonaro – who secured 58m votes in the recent election to Lula’s 60m – would, like his US ally Donald Trump, attempt some kind of comeback.
Octavio Guedes, a political commentator for the TV network GloboNews, said he was certain Brazil’s resurgent right would continue to flourish post-Bolsonaro. “What I’m not sure of is who the leader of this right is going to be.”
Guedes wagered that if “the extremist Bolsonaro” moderated his behavior and reached out to middle-of-the-road conservatives, he might continue as Brazil’s undisputed right-wing leader. Otherwise, a more conventional rival from “the bosom of Bolsonarismo” might fill the ex-president’s shoes and take the right in a less radical direction.
Guedes believed that one of the most likely successors was the former Bolsonaro minister Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, who was recently elected governor of Brazil’s most economically important state, São Paulo.
Leaders from Africa, Europe and across Latin America are expected in Brasília to witness the beginning of what is Lula’s third presidential term in a legendary four-decade political career.
The 77-year-old former union leader first ran for the presidency in 1989 and was elected Brazil’s first working-class president in 2002. He stepped down after two terms in 2010 only to stage this year’s sensational political comeback after spending 580 days in prison. on corruption charges that were later annulled.
Bolsonaro’s refusal to attend Sunday’s inauguration or pass the presidential sash to his opponent as is customary means that the task may fall to the head of the lower house, Arthur Lira, or the senate, Rodrigo Pacheco.
Some reports have suggested a symbolic group of Brazilian citizens will fulfill the duty, perhaps including Indigenous or Afro-Brazilian activists whose communities suffered so much under Bolsonaro.