Outgoing conservative populist President Jair Bolsonaro has abruptly flown out of Brazil, just two days before his rival and leftist successor, President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was set to take office.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who issued an emotional, 50-minute video defense of his stormy four years in office on social media before departing Friday, did not indicate where he was going. But his office said later he was en route to Orlando, Florida, where he has relatives and a security detail.
He will stay there at least a month, aides said.
“I am in flight. Back soon,” Mr. Bolsonaro said upon leaving, according to CNN Brasil.
The flight sidesteps what would have been an extremely awkward transfer of power in Brasilia on New Year’s Day, but only deepens the political mystery over Mr. Bolsonaro‘s plans and those of his devoted political base.
The outgoing president, nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics” for his confrontational style and his political and ideological closeness to former U.S. President Donald Trump, has not contested his close electoral loss to Mr. da Silva in October. But he has also not recognized the outcome.
Many of his followers insist the election was stolen and have been demonstrating and pressuring Brazil‘s military to step in and overturn the vote.
Mr. Bolsonaro praised the protests but has also said he did not help organize them. He told his supporters regarding the looming transfer of power that “battles are lost, but we will not lose the war.”
Mr. da Silva, 77, a global leftist icon who served two previous terms as president starting in 2003, has vowed to overturn much of Mr. Bolsonaro‘s agenda, in particular scaling back development in the vast Amazon region that the current government had encouraged.
Reuters reported that Vice President Hamilton Mourao, now acting president, confirmed Mr. Bolsonaro had left the country, but said he would not take part in Sunday’s inauguration festivities, either.
Mr. Bolsonaro faced a complicated situation if he stayed in Brazil, as his presidential immunity from prosecution would expire when he left office.
But he was also poised to wield considerable political influence, given the closeness of the final vote. He retains a sizable bloc of supporters in the national legislature and has a chance to run again for president in 2026.
Exiting Brazilian presidents, as in the U.S., traditionally attend the inauguration ceremonies for their successors, and by leaving the country Mr. Bolsonaro followed another trail blazed by Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump left Washington just before President Biden was sworn in in January 2021, the first chief executive to skip the inauguration ceremonies since Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Reflecting his position as a longtime champion of the developing world, Mr. da Silva‘s swearing-in is expected to attract a large number of leaders from African and Latin American countries. President Biden, who had a strained relationship with Mr. Bolsonaro, last week announced that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland will lead the U.S. delegation to the New Year’s Day ceremonies in Brasilia.