Lula returns vowing to rebuild, reunify Brazil

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office Sunday for a third term as Brazil's president, vowing to fight for the poor and the environment and "rebuild the country" after far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro's divisive administration.

The 77-year-old veteran leftist, who previously led Brazil from 2003 to 2010, took the oath of office before Congress, capping a remarkable political comeback for the metalworker-turned-president less than five years after he was jailed on controversial, since-quashed corruption charges.

A sea of red-clad supporters braved the scorching heat to flood Brasilia, exuberantly cheering Lula as he was driven through the ultra-modern capital in a black convertible Rolls-Royce, accompanied by First Lady Rosangela "Janja" da Silva and Vice President Geraldo Alckmin.

Giving a blistering overview of the past four years under Bolsonaro -- who snubbed the ceremony, in a break with tradition -- Lula said his government would work to undo a legacy of economic decline, surging poverty and funding cuts in health, education and science.

"Upon these terrible ruins, I pledge to rebuild the country, together with the Brazilian people," he said, vowing to fight for poor Brazilians, racial and gender equality, and zero deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, where destruction surged under Bolsonaro.

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.

Wearing a blue suit and tie, the charismatic but controversial Lula was then driven from Congress to the Planalto presidential palace, escorted by dozens of bodyguards.

There, he received the presidential sash from eight citizens selected to represent the Brazilian people, including a schoolteacher, a disabled man, a precocious 10-year-old and renowned Indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire.

An emotional Lula broke down in tears, thanking the Brazilian people for their faith in him and vowing to fight for a more just country.

He also extended an olive branch to the many Brazilians who did not vote for him in the election, which he won by a razor-thin 50.9 percent to Bolsonaro's 49.1 percent.

"I will govern for all 215 million Brazilians," he said.

"There aren't two Brazils. We are one country, one people."

- 'Historic day' -

It is the first time since the end of Brazil's 1965-1985 military dictatorship that an incoming leader has not received the yellow-and-green presidential sash from his predecessor.

Bolsonaro, who has not explicitly acknowledged his loss or congratulated Lula, left Brazil for the US state of Florida on Friday.

The snub hardly dampened the party spirit of the New Year's Day ceremony, which included a massive concert featuring acts from samba legend Martinho da Vila to drag queen Pabllo Vittar.

Wearing a red hat, attendee Lurdiana Araujo called it a moment of "rebirth" -- for both Brazil and Lula, who had become a political pariah until the Supreme Court quashed his corruption convictions in 2021, ruling the lead judge in the case had been biased.

"We've spent the past four years suffering. Now we are witnessing a rebirth of democracy," the 51-year-old said.

Foreign dignitaries including 19 heads of state were in attendance.

They included the presidents of a raft of Latin American countries, Germany, Portugal and the king of Spain.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who did not attend, posted on Twitter a photo of himself with Lula, saying "Order and Progress" -- the words which adorn the Brazilian flag.

He added: "Brazil lives up to its motto. Congratulations dear President, dear friend."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also tweeted his congratulations, saying: "Here's to a bright future for our countries—and the world."

Security was exceptionally tight for the ceremony, after a Bolsonaro supporter was arrested last week for planting a tanker truck rigged with explosives near the capital's airport.

But no major incidents were reported.

- Reversing Bolsonaro policies -

Lula got straight to work with a flurry of measures to bolster gun-control regulations slashed by Bolsonaro, revoke the ex-president's rollbacks of environmental protections, and revive the internationally backed Amazon Fund to protect the rainforest.

Lula faces numerous urgent challenges in Latin America's biggest economy, which looks little like the commodities-fueled dynamo he led in the 2000s.

They include rebooting economic growth, curbing rampant deforestation 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.

He will face a Congress dominated by Bolsonaro's conservative allies.

Meanwhile, just 51 percent of Brazilians think he will do a better job than Bolsonaro, according to a poll published Saturday by the Datafolha institute.

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