Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro returned to the country on Thursday for the first time since his election defeat that culminated in thousands of his supporters rioting in protest at the result.
The far-right politician flew back to Brasilia from Florida, where he stayed for three months in self-imposed exile after he failed to win reelection in last year’s presidential vote. Bolsonaro has never formally conceded defeat and filed a petition contesting the result, but it was rejected by the country’s electoral court.
Military police were on high alert in and around the airport, setting up checkpoints on the main road as about 50 Bolsonaro supporters gathered to welcome him. Authorities had earlier asked supporters to stay away from the airport.
The small group of supporters at the airport’s international arrival hall all wore yellow and green Brazilian soccer jerseys, some draped in flags.
One man on a motorcycle carrying a large Brazilian flag was turned away by police at the checkpoint, a CNN team on the ground reported, in line with the tight security plan announced by authorities Wednesday.
Bolsonaro then traveled to the headquarters of his center-right Liberal Party in Brasilia, where a small group of supporters were waiting outside to greet him.
He addressed party members and former ministers at the headquarters, saying that the current government “won’t be able to do whatever they like with the future” of Brazil.
“We are 20% of the bench (congress), besides other colleagues from other parties, we are the majority inside the congress and we want the best for our country,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted on the party’s Twitter account.
“I am sure you will drive Brazil to a safe harbor, and it’s with immense pride that I return,” he added.
Return ratchets up tensions in Brazil
Speaking to CNN affiliate CNN Brasil at Florida’s Orlando airport late Wednesday, Bolsonaro said he would not lead the opposition to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva on his return – despite rallying support from conservative activists and far-right groups during his three-month stay in the United States.
“You don’t have to oppose this government. This government is an opposition in itself,” Bolsonaro told CNN Brasil.
Instead, Bolsonaro said he planned to help his party “as an experienced person,” collaborating with “whatever they wish,” CNN Brasil quoted the former president as saying. He added that he will tour the country in preparation for next year’s municipal elections.
Bolsonaro’s return comes as political divisions run deep in Brazil after he left the country in December last year just days before Lula’s inauguration.
Though he denounced the invasion of Brasilia by his supporters, in the days following the election he welcomed peaceful demonstrations while his party filed petitions for an audit of voting machines, alleging fraud. He fed his followers crumbs of misinformation about election fraud and made vague comments hinting at a potential coup.
The attacks in Brasilia bore similarities to the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, when supporters of ex-US President Donald Trump – a close ally of Bolsonaro – stormed Congress in an effort to prevent the certification of his election defeat.
Brazil’s Supreme Court is investigating Bolsonaro’s alleged involvement in the Brasilia riots, particularly to find out who or how far-right mobs that support the ex-leader ended up ransacking the seats of government.
Bolsonaro is also under scrutiny over jewelry he allegedly received as a gift from the Saudi Arabian government while in office, and Federal Police have subpoenaed him to appear before authorities, according to CNN Brasil.
The Saudi royal family gave Bolsonaro three boxes of luxury items worth millions of dollars during his state visit to Riyadh in 2019.
Two of the cases were transported back to Brazil by government aides and were received by customs authorities. One of the boxes still remains in Bolsonaro’s possession, according to CNN Brasil.
On Thursday, Bolsonaro told local broadcaster Jovem Pan that the jewels are registered, documented and “ready to be handed over without any problem.”
“I don’t know what the fuss is all about, if they think this is something I did wrong than I’m very happy because there’s nothing to accuse me of,” he said.
Brazilian federal prosecutors are also investigating whether Bolsonaro tried to smuggle two sets of diamond jewels into the country without paying import taxes.
CNN’s Julia Jones and Mia Alberti contributed reporting.