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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro gestures during a ceremony in which some of the ministers of his cabinet take office a day after the swearing-in of the country's new government, at Planalto Palace in Brasilia, on January 2, 2019 Image Credit: AFP

BRASILIA: Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain who has promised radical measures to cut soaring crime and widespread corruption, was sworn in as president on Tuesday, marking Brazil’s starkest shift to the right since its return to democracy three decades ago.

Bolsonaro, 63, rode a populist revolt against the traditional political class to take the presidency. He has pledged to take South America’s largest nation in a new direction — adopting an iron-fisted approach to crime, allowing citizens to arm themselves for self-defence, and promoting more development in the environmentally sensitive Amazon. An ardent admirer of President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has vowed to move this nation away from its left-leaning foreign policy.

“I invite all of Congress to join me in the mission to restore and rebuild our homeland, liberating it from corruption, crime, economic irresponsibility and ideological traps,” Bolsonaro said shortly after being sworn in.

With Bolsonaro’s inauguration, Latin America’s two biggest economies are now in the hands of anti-establishment populists. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist, took office in Mexico on December 1. But while Lopez Obrador won a reputation as a pragmatist while in a previous job as mayor of Mexico City, the new Brazilian leader appears more unpredictable.

Bolsonaro is an ardent supporter of the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and is the most conservative ruler to come to power in the region in decades. His vice president and several key ministers are former military officers. Lawmakers who support the new president greeted him in Congress on Tuesday by pointing their fingers in the shape of a gun.

In his speech to lawmakers, Bolsonaro promised to reduce bureaucratic regulations, promote a more free-market economic policy and protect police officers. He hinted that he would try to loosen gun laws, saying: “A good citizen deserves methods of defending himself.”

That move, though, could be challenged by Congress. Even more difficult may be injecting steam into the sluggish Brazilian economy, which analysts say will require broad austerity measures. Bolsonaro will need to mediate between the country’s three dozen political parties, which will demand compromise and political skill.

Authorities said they expected a half-million spectators to attend inaugural events, but the crowds appeared thinner. Still, thousands of people filled the Praca dos tres Poderes, a massive lawn akin to the National Mall in Washington, DC, for Bolsonaro’s first speech to the public on Tuesday afternoon. Supporters wore shirts featuring the new president’s face and waved Brazilian flags.

The government launched the largest security operation ever for a presidential inauguration, mobilising over 3,000 police officers, firefighters, and soldiers. Bolsonaro was wounded by a knife-wielding assailant during the campaign, and he takes office at a moment when the country is deeply polarised.

Many Brazilians oppose Bolsonaro for his history of incendiary statements — he has insulted women and minorities and said he prefers a dead son to a gay one. In his speech to Congress on Tuesday, Bolsonaro struck a conciliatory tone, saying “I reaffirm my commitment to building a society without discrimination or division.”

Once a darling of the global left for its progressive welfare policies, Brazil is set to become a bastion of conservatism in Latin America.

The leftist Workers’ Party, which dominated Brazilian politics from 2003 to 2016, boycotted the ceremony. The party was resoundingly defeated in the October election, with many citizens blaming it for a devastating recession from which Brazil is only now emerging.

Among them was Lorena Abdaba, 32, a professor who travelled 33 hours by bus from her native state of Espirito Santo to attend the inauguration. She said Bolsonaro represented a historic moment for her country — a moment she couldn’t miss.

“I also came to watch the official exit of the Workers’ Party from the presidency,” she said.

A few miles away, 19-year-old college student Grace Kelly Silveira, 19, waited at a bus station as Bolsonaro supporters poured through the terminal on their way to the inauguration, cheering as they waved Brazilian flags.

“I think he is too radical,” she said. She cast a blank ballot in the elections, saying she couldn’t vote for the Workers’ Party because of their involvement in corruption scandals. “They were major thieves,” she said.

In foreign policy, Bolsonaro has signalled he plans major changes and that he may follow Trump’s lead on some issues.

For example, he has threatened to pull out of the Paris climate accords, and said he will relocate Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Occupied Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Brasilia for the inauguration, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the incoming Brazilian government rescinded invitations to the inauguration that had been sent to Cuban and Venezuelan leaders, traditional allies of the Workers’ Party.

Like Trump, Bolsonaro upended politics as usual in Brazil, winning the presidency through a social media heavy campaign fuelled by popular anger. Many Brazilians, wary of established politicians after a corruption scandal tainted vast swaths of the country’s political elite, saw in Bolsonaro an outsider they could trust.

As a fringe politician with few alliances, Bolsonaro was one of the few to emerge unscathed from the scandals.

Though Bolsonaro promised after the election to be a leader to all of Brazil’s 200 million people, on the eve of the inauguration, he tweeted a vow to rid Brazilian schools of “Marxist trash,” slipping back into the divisive rhetoric that got him elected.