Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office Sunday for a third term as Brazil’s president, in a ceremony snubbed by outgoing leader Jair Bolsonaro, underlining the deep divisions the veteran leftist inherits.
The 77-year-old ex-metalworker, who previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, took the oath of office before Congress, vowing to “maintain, defend and obey the constitution” as he returns to lead Latin America’s biggest economy after a bitterly divisive election in October.
Lula wore a blue suit and tie for the swearing-in, which began with a minute’s silence for Brazilian football legend Pele and former pope Benedict XVI, who both died in recent days.
It capped a remarkable political comeback for Lula, who returns to the presidential palace less than five years after being jailed on controversial, since-quashed corruption charges.
In a sign of the scars that remain from Lula’s brutal election showdown with far-right ex-army captain Bolsonaro in October, security was exceptionally tight at the pomp-filled ceremony in Brasilia.
Some 8,000 police were deployed, after a Bolsonaro supporter was arrested last week for planting a tanker truck rigged with explosives near the capital’s airport, a plot he said aimed to “sow chaos” in the South American country.
Police said they arrested another man Sunday who tried to enter the secured inaugural ceremony area carrying a knife and fireworks.
Bolsonaro himself left Brazil for the US state of Florida Friday — reportedly to avoid having to hand the presidential sash to his bitter enemy, as tradition dictates.
The snub has hardly dampened the party spirit for Lula and the tens of thousands of people who turned out for the New Year’s Day ceremony and a massive celebration concert featuring acts ranging from samba legend Martinho da Vila to drag queen Pabllo Vittar.
Thousands of Lula supporters from around the country formed massive lines to filter through the security cordon, belting out pro-Lula chants.
“I’m excited beyond measure,” retired teacher Zenia Maria Soares Pinto, 71, told AFP after traveling 30 hours by bus from the southern state of Santa Catarina.
“I have so much admiration for his humility, his commitment to ensuring the people live in dignity,” added Pinto, part of a crowd cheering for Lula outside the hotel where the new president spent the night.
Machine operator Valter Gildo, 46, called it a “historic day.”
“Today marks the return of a working man to the presidential palace, someone who fights for social causes, for minorities, against racism and homophobia, a person who represents Brazil,” he said.
Foreign dignitaries including 19 heads of state were in attendance as Lula, who previously led Brazil through a watershed boom from 2003 to 2010, took the oath of office for a new four-year term.
They included the presidents of a raft of Latin American countries, Germany, Portugal and the king of Spain.
After being sworn in before Congress, Lula will go to the ultra-modern capital’s presidential palace, the Planalto.
There, he will walk up a ramp to the entrance and receive the gold- and diamond-embroidered presidential sash.
Organizers of the ceremony — led by first lady-to-be Rosangela “Janja” da Silva — have kept secret who will give Lula the sash in Bolsonaro’s absence.
It will be the first time since the end of Brazil’s 1965-1985 military dictatorship that an incoming president does not receive the yellow-and-green sash from his predecessor.
- Pressing to-do list –
Lula faces numerous urgent challenges in the Latin American giant, which looks little like the commodities-fueled dynamo he led in the 2000s.
They include rebooting economic growth, curbing rampant destruction of the Amazon rainforest and delivering on his ambitious agenda to fight poverty and inequality.
Markets are meanwhile watching nervously how Lula will fund his promised social spending, given Brazil’s overstretched government finances.
Lula will face a Congress dominated by Bolsonaro’s conservative allies.
In a sign of how polarized the country remains, far-right hardliners have been protesting outside army bases ever since Lula’s narrow runoff win on October 30, calling for a military intervention to keep him from taking power.