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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bolsonaro heading home to Brazil - and an uncertain future

By Terrence McCoy and Moriah Balingit Washington Post

RIO DE JANEIRO - Former president Jair Bolsonaro flew home Thursday morning to Brazil, a country deeply divided by his governance and policies, where he faces an array of investigations that could ultimately end his political career and even put him in prison.

The 68-year-old politician’s return to Brasília is his first visit to the capital since he departed for the United States in late December, shortly before the inauguration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the ensuing attack on the city’s most important federal buildings by thousands of Bolsonaro backers.

Without making any public statements or addressing supporters waiting for him at the airport - many of them clad in the green and gold of his nationalistic movement - Bolsonaro headed to the headquarters of his Liberal Party and wasted little time criticizing the leftists now in office.

He praised the current congressional makeup, which includes more of his conservative allies elected last year, as a needed safeguard against Lula’s governance. “They’re doing what needs to be done and showing the people who for now are in power for a short time that [the left is] not going to do what they really want to do with the future of our nation,” he said.

The polarizing Bolsonaro has returned at a particularly vulnerable moment for the country, which is still reeling from the most divisive election in its history and the shocking scenes of violence that followed the vote. Bolsonaro’s presence could re-galvanize the far right and antagonize the governing left.

“His political capital remains very strong,” said Odilon Caldeira Neto, the coordinator of the nonpartisan Observatory of the Extreme Right, based in the state of Minas Gerais. “All indications point to his capacity to mobilize people on the right.”

Bolsonaro has announced his intentions to lead the opposition to the Lula administration, and his party plans to feature him in early campaigning throughout the Northeast region for the 2024 municipal elections. He is expected to maintain a residence in an upscale part of Brasília, where his wife, Michelle, had been living as he considered when to come home.

It remains unclear why Bolsonaro decided to leave Brazil after narrowly losing the election to Lula - he traveled on a tourist visa to the Orlando suburb of Kissimmee - or why he waited more than three months before returning. Although he has frequently expressed fears of being locked up, he was counseled by advisers while in Florida that his risk of imprisonment in Brazil was low.

He is the target of 20 investigations, six of them criminal. The allegations against him are legion and seem to grow by the day. Authorities are investigating whether he spread fake news about the country’s electoral system or inflamed a mob to invade and vandalize the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court and Congress after his defeat.

Senior judicial officials told The Washington Post in January that no evidence had surfaced at that point to justify his arrest.

More recently, his administration has come under investigation for its response to a humanitarian crisis in Yanomami Indigenous territory and whether Bolsonaro maneuvered wrongfully to keep jewelry worth several million dollars that was a gift from the Saudi government. Bolsonaro officials have denied wrongdoing on both fronts and subsequently returned some of the valuables, but the probes continued. He is expected to present testimony in the jewelry case in early April.

The outcome of any of these investigations could be far-reaching - not only for Bolsonaro, but also for Brazil.

The former army captain spent much of his final year in office campaigning against the electoral system as much as he did against Lula, undermining its credibility in frequent public statements and asserting without evidence that the election would be marred by fraud. His claims were never substantiated, but millions of bolsonaristas still believe that corrupt, unseen powers colluded to keep their leader from office.

There are widespread fears that the country could again experience social upheaval if Bolsonaro was arrested or disqualified from running again for office. Even if he escapes the inquiries unscathed, he will face questions over whether he’ll be able to mount another successful national campaign. Some of his fiercest supporters have grown to doubt his political acumen.

“It was Bolsonaro who resuscitated Lula, by minimizing the pandemic, by calling it a little flu, by playing with something serious,” said Claudinei Junior, 36, a Bolsonaro supporter in rural São Paulo state. “I don’t think he’ll be able to galvanize enough support if he comes back.”