Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro leaves for US two days before term expires

Reports say Brazilian President left country to avoid participating in presidential transition

Police and security forces attend a rehearsal for the presidential inauguration in Brasilia. AFP
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President Jair Bolsonaro left Brazil for the US on Friday, 48 hours before his leftist rival, president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was set to take office, saying he had “lost a battle but not the war”.

Mr Bolsonaro, who has barely spoken since losing the election, has not confirmed where he is going, but plane-tracking data suggest he is heading to Florida, where his security staff are already in place.

He had repeatedly said he did not want to hand over the presidential sash to Mr da Silva at Sunday's inauguration, breaking with Brazil's democratic tradition.

He may also face legal risks by remaining in Brazil, as his presidential immunity expires when Mr da Silva takes office.

Vice President Hamilton Mourao is now acting president, his press office told Reuters, confirming Mr Bolsonaro had left the country. But Mr Mourao will not pass the presidential sash to Mr da Silva either, a representative said.

Website FlightAware, which monitors air traffic, showed that the presidential plane departed Brasilia shortly after 2pm local time, bound for Orlando, Florida.

“I am in flight, back soon,” Mr Bolsonaro was quoted as saying by CNN Brasil.

Before take-off, Mr Bolsonaro delivered a teary-eyed final address on social media in which he ran through the highlights of his time in office, sought to defend his legacy and tried to inspire his followers into keeping up the fight against Mr da Silva.

Some of his base have refused to accept Mr da Silva's victory, believing Mr Bolsonaro's baseless claims that the October election was stolen, leading to a tense atmosphere in Brasilia, with riots and a foiled bomb plot last week.

Mr Bolsonaro labelled the bomb plot a “terrorist act” for which there was no justification. He sought to distance himself from George Washington de Oliveira Sousa, the man who confessed to making the bomb, and who told police that Mr Bolsonaro's call to arms inspired him to gather an arsenal of guns and explosives.

“The man had ideas that are not shared by any citizen, but now they classify him as a 'Bolsonarista',” the President said.

However, Mr Bolsonaro also praised protesters who have been camping outside army barracks across the country, urging the military to stage a coup.

“I did not encourage anyone to enter confrontation,” he said. He added that his supporters had merely been seeking “freedom”.

The President said the protests had been “spontaneous”, with no leadership or co-ordination.

Mr Bolsonaro's swift exit is a disappointment for many on the right, where his reputation has taken a beating for his post-election silence.

His political associates want him to lead the conservative opposition to Mr da Silva with a view to ousting him in the next election in 2026.

Some felt abandoned by their leader's departure, while diehard supporters gathered at the entrance of the Alvorada Palace, the presidential residence where he lived, called him a “coward” during his speech, according to a Reuters witness.

Brazil elections — in pictures

Updated: December 30, 2022, 9:09 PM