Lula sworn in as president of divided Brazil amid tight security

The veteran politician, taking office for an historic third term, faces the challenge of uniting the country polarised under far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.

Leftist leader Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva has pledged to “rebuild” Brazil “with the people” as he was sworn in as the new president of the fiercely polarised country for a historic third term.

The inauguration ceremony in Congress began at 3pm (18:00 GMT) on Sunday under tightened security after alleged threats of violence by supporters of his far-right predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro.

“Our message to Brazil is one of hope and reconstruction,” Lula said in a speech before the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, after signing the document that formally instated him as president.

“The great edifice of rights, sovereignty and development that this nation built has been systematically demolished in recent years. And to re-erect this edifice, we are going to direct all our efforts.”

Brazil's new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures as he is sworn in at the National Congress, in Brasilia
President Lula da Silva was sworn in at the Congress in Brasilia [Jacqueline Lisboa/Reuters]

The veteran leader also promised to fight to improve life for poor Brazilians, work towards racial and gender equality, and achieve zero deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

“The mandate we received, in the face of opponents inspired by fascism, will be defended through our democratic constitution. We will respond to hate with love, to lies with the truth, to terrorism and violence with the law.”

Lula also delivered a veiled threat to Bolsonaro, who faces mounting legal risks for his anti-democratic rhetoric and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic now that he no longer has presidential immunity.

“We do not carry any spirit of revenge against those who tried to subjugate the nation to their personal and ideological designs, but we will guarantee the rule of law,” Lula said, without mentioning his predecessor by name. “Those who erred will answer for their errors.”

He also accused Bolsonaro’s administration of committing “genocide” by failing to respond properly to the COVID-19 emergency that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.

“The responsibilities for this genocide must be investigated and must not go unpunished,” he said.

‘Comeback for the ages’

The swearing-in began with a minute of silence for Brazilian football legend Pele and former Pope Benedict XVI, who both died in recent days.

Tens of thousands of red-clad supporters cheered loudly as Lula’s motorcade slowly rolled down Brasilia’s Esplanade of Ministries, escorted by dozens of bodyguards.

Foreign dignitaries, including 19 heads of state, were in attendance as Lula took the oath of office for a new four-year term. Among them were the king of Spain and the presidents of Germany, Portugal, and a raft of Latin American countries.

Lula, 77, narrowly defeated Bolsonaro in October to win an unprecedented third presidential term after a hiatus that saw him spend a year and a half behind bars on corruption convictions that were later overturned.

In his previous years as the president of the Workers’ Party (PT) from 2003 to 2010, the former union leader lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty during a commodity boom that buoyed the economy.

“It is a comeback for the ages and Lula’s political projecture has been a trajectory of improbable accomplishments,” Gustavo Ribeiro, founder of The Brazilian Report, told Al Jazeera.

“He was a poverty migrant, worked as a shoe shiner, worked on a factory floor then rose to union leader. He lost three presidential races before he won two terms,” he said.

Now, Lula faces the daunting challenge of improving Brazil’s stagnant economy while also bringing together a country that has become painfully polarised under Bolsonaro.

“It is a very divided nation that Lula will inherit, and one of his many challenges will be to unite the country once more,” said Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from a sit-in where Bolsonaro supporters have been camping out for more than two months.

Brazil's President elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva swear-in ceremony
Supporters of Brazil’s President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gather ahead of Lula’s swearing-in ceremony, in Brasilia, Brazil on January 1, 2023 [Adriano Machado/Reuters]

Ribeiro echoes that sentiment. “I don’t think Lula will benefit from that proverbial honeymoon period that new presidents enjoy. A big chunk of the country doesn’t see him as a legitimate leader. He will take over a cash-strapped government with a lot of challenges ahead of him,” he said.

Lula has promised, in his words, to “make Brazil happy again”. But he faces many hurdles, from rising poverty to public services in crisis, including lack of investment in education and healthcare.

‘Social disintegration’

Bolsonaro’s supporters have falsely claimed that the election was stolen and have protested for two months, calling for a military coup to stop Lula from returning to office in a climate of vandalism and violence.

Police said they arrested a man on Sunday after he tried to enter the secured inaugural ceremony area carrying a knife and fireworks.

Last week, a Bolsonaro supporter was arrested for planting a tanker truck rigged with explosives near the Brasilia airport, a plot he said aimed to “sow chaos” in the country.

Bolsonaro left Brazil on Friday for Florida in the United States, avoiding having to hand over the sash to his rival, whose victory he has yet to recognise, while also removing himself from any immediate legal risks related to his time in office.

Before flying to Florida, Bolsonaro delivered a teary address to the nation in which he condemned the bomb plot as a “terrorist act”, but praised protesters camped outside army barracks across the country.

Brazil's President elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva swear-in ceremony
Supporters of President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gather to attend his inauguration along the central avenue in Brasilia, Brazil on Sunday, January 1, 2023 [Gustavo Moreno/AP]

In a thinly veiled dig, acting President Hamilton Mourao, who was Bolsonaro’s vice president, criticised his former boss for failing to lead the country and allowing anti-democratic sentiment to thrive after his October defeat at the polls.

“Leaders who were supposed to reassure and unite the nation … allowed silence or inopportune and deleterious protagonism to create an atmosphere of chaos and social disintegration,” Mourao said in a speech on Saturday night.

Tight security

Authorities deployed 10,000 police and troops to reinforce security at Sunday’s events and to search participants, who could not bring bottles, cans, flag masts or toy guns. Carrying firearms by civilians has also been temporarily banned.

Thousands of Lula supporters have been flooding the capital, travelling by plane, car and even bicycle to camp out near the Esplanade of Ministries.

After the swearing-in, Lula left Congress in an open-top Rolls-Royce. He then arrived at the Planalto Palace, where he walked up its ramp with a diverse group that included his wife Rosangela, Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó tribe, a young Black boy and a disabled man. Lula was then handed the presidential sash – a hugely symbolic act in Brazil that Bolsonaro had repeatedly said he would never do – by a Black woman.

It was the first time since the end of Brazil’s 1965-1985 military dictatorship that an incoming president did not receive the yellow-and-green sash from his predecessor.

Brazil's President elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva swear-in ceremony
Firefighters spray water over supporters of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gathering to attend his inauguration as new president outside the Planalto presidential palace in Brasilia, Brazil on Sunday, January 1, 2023 [Eraldo Peres/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies