Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva used his inaugural address as Brazil’s president on Sunday to launch a stinging attack on the administration of his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, while speaking of the need to “rebuild” Latin America’s largest nation.

Despite expectations for a conciliatory first speech, Lula criticised the rightwing Bolsonaro for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and economic and social policies that he said had caused “national destruction”.

“The responsibilities for this [Covid] genocide must be investigated and must not go unpunished. It is up to us now to show solidarity with the relatives of almost 700,000 victims,” he said.

The remarks in front of Congress, which were repeatedly interrupted by applause and chants of Lula’s name, came as the new president was sworn in for a historic third term.

A security agent holds an anti-drone gun before the inauguration ceremony on Sunday © Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

The ceremony took place exactly two decades after the 77-year-old former union activist first took office as the leader of the South American country.

After a divisive election in October in which Lula defeated the populist Bolsonaro by less than 2 percentage points, the leftwing leader faces an uphill battle to restore calm to the nation’s fevered political arena.

Amid a tense atmosphere and tightened security measures, police on Sunday morning detained a man carrying a knife and fireworks. He had attempted to enter Brasilia’s central esplanade, which was hosting crowds for the inauguration.

It followed the arrest of another man on Christmas Eve in connection with an explosive device found in a fuel tanker near the capital city’s airport. The suspect allegedly told police that the aim was to “sow chaos” and provoke a state of emergency.

Since the election result hundreds of Bolsonaro’s most devout supporters — who claim without proof that the ballot was rigged — have rallied outside military bases across Brazil, calling for the armed forces to annul Lula’s victory.

They were left reeling on Friday, however, when the former army captain quietly left the country, flying to Florida in order to avoid Lula’s inauguration.

Thousands of Lula supporters gathered in Brasília for the inauguration, clad in the red of the president’s Workers’ party © Amanda Perobelli/Reuters

Tens of thousands of supporters of the new president, meanwhile, descended on Brasília, with vast crowds, clad in the red of Lula’s Workers’ party, assembling on Sunday in the city’s yawning central esplanade.

Dubbed “Lulapalooza” by fans, the event mixed political pomp and pageantry alongside a festival-style celebration with live music.

Cheers erupted when Lula — who was born in Brazil’s impoverished north-east before moving to the industrial hub of São Paulo — appeared mid-afternoon in an open-top 1950s-era Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, alongside his wife, the vice-president Geraldo Alckmin and his partner.

In his speech to Congress, Lula said his “message to Brazil is of hope and reconstruction”.

Dressed in a formal blue suit and tie, the new president focused on the need to tackle the country’s deep poverty, saying “no nation has risen or can rise on the misery of its people”.

“Our first action will be to rescue 33mn people from hunger and the 100mn poverty-stricken, who have borne the heaviest burden of [Bolsonaro’s] project of national destruction, which ends today.”

Lula also promised he would repeal Bolsonaro’s decrees loosening firearms regulations, and praised Brazilians for their commitment to democracy.

“Democracy was the biggest victor in this election, overcoming the greatest ever mobilisation of public and private resources; the most violent threats to voting freedom and the most abject campaign of lies and hatred.”

Dorjivan Santos, a 52-year-old logistics manager from the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Norte, said he travelled to Brasília especially for the event because it represented the “victory of good over evil”.

“Lula unites people, he unites the ethnicities and regions of Brazil. I’ve never seen such a festival of people,” he said, adding that the new president’s biggest challenges would be to “end the radicalism of the right”.

During his first two terms between 2003 and 2010, Lula oversaw a period of strong economic growth, improved living standards and Brazil’s rise on the international stage.

However, his legacy was tainted by corruption controversies and economic mismanagement under his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Lula spent 580 days in prison after being found guilty of graft, until his release in November 2019. The convictions were annulled last year by the supreme court.

Many Brazilians remain wary of the veteran politician and his Workers’ party, which was in power for 13 years until the 2016 impeachment of Rousseff.

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