Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has vowed to rescue a “ruined” Brazil from Jair Bolsonaro’s era of “error” as he was sworn in as president on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the capital to mark the start of Lula’s third term as he was inaugurated under tightened security following threats of violence by supporters of his far-right predecessor.
Bolsonaro left Brazil for Florida on Friday meaning he avoided having to hand over the ceremonial sash to his rival, whose victory he has yet to recognize, while also removing himself from any immediate legal risks related to his time in office.
In a speech to Congress after officially taking the reins of Latin America’s biggest country, leftist Lula pledged to rebuild the nation, adding: “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”.
Lula, who governed Brazil for two terms from 2003-2010, hailed democracy as the true winner of the October presidential vote, when he narrowly ousted Bolsonaro in the most fraught election for a generation.
Refusing to accept defeat, Bolsonaro rattled the cages of Brazil’s young democracy with baseless claims of electoral weaknesses that birthed a violent movement of election deniers.
“Democracy was the great victor in this election, overcoming ... the most violent threats to freedom to vote, and the most abject campaign of lies and hate plotted to manipulate and embarrass the electorate,” Lula told Congress.
“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.”
Lula accused Bolsonaro’s “negationist” administration of committing “genocide” by failing to properly respond to the Covid-19 pandemic that killed more than 680,000 Brazilians.
He said he was receiving a ruined country where hunger had returned under Bolsonaro, whose government he said had depleted resources for education, health and the conservation of forests, and undermined human rights.
Lula also laid out his priorities for his presidency, including the country achieving zero deforestation in the Amazon and zero greenhouse gas emissions, as well as boosting small and medium-sized businesses in a global economy.
More than 30,000 people gathered to celebrate on Brasilia’s esplanade, with authorities deploying 10,000 police and troops to reinforce security and search participants.
A man trying to enter the esplanade with an explosive device and a knife was detained on Sunday, while on Christmas Eve a supporter was arrested for making a bomb that was discovered on a truck laden with aviation fuel at the entrance to Brasilia airport.
Among those who were there to welcome the new president was Claudio Arantes, a 68-year-old pensioner, who carried an old Lula campaign flag.
The lifelong Lula supporter attended his 2003 inauguration and agreed this time feels different.
“Back then, he could talk about Brazil being united. Now it is divided and won’t heal soon,” Mr Arantes said. “I trust his intelligence to make this national unity administration work so we never have a Bolsonaro again.”
Lula’s unprecedented third presidential term follows 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 Workers Party (PT) president, the former union leader lifted millions of Brazilians from poverty during a commodity boom that buoyed the economy.
The returning president now faces the daunting challenge of improving Brazil’s economy while also uniting a country that has become polarised under Bolsonaro.
“A lot is expected of Lula. He’ll have the difficult mission to restore normality and predictability in Brazil, and above all to rapidly deliver results that improve the quality of life for its inhabitants,” said Creomar de Souza, director of Dharma Political Risk consultancy in Brasilia.
Before leaving the country, Bolsonaro delivered a teary address to the nation in which he condemned the foiled Christmas Eve bomb plot as a “terrorist act” but praised his supporters who camped outside army barracks across the country calling for a coup.
In a thinly veiled dig at his former boss, acting president Hamilton Mourao, who was Bolsonaro’s vice president, criticized him 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,” Mr Mourao said in a speech on Saturday night.