April 22, 2008 [LINK / comment]

Opposition wins in Paraguay

Paraguay flag For the first time in over sixty years, an opposition party has won the presidential elections in Paraguay. Fernando Lugo, who used to be a Catholic bishop, won 41 percent of the votes. He leads the "Patriotic Alliance for Change," a coalition of center-left parties. Blanca Ovelar of the once-dominant Colorado Party won 30 percent; the party has suffered from bitter infighting in recent years. Ovelar would have been the third presidenta (female) currently serving in South America, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The third-place candidate, Lino Oviedo, received 21 precent. The founder of the "National Union of Ethical Citizens" party, he is a retired colonel who was jailed for plotting a coup attempt in 1996, and later plotted another coup attempt in May 2000 while in exile. Unlike most Latin American countries, there is no provision in Paraguay for a run-off election in case no candidate gets a required percentage of the vote. Lugo pledged to renegotiate the agreements on hydroelectric power Paraguay signed with Brazil and Argentina. He denied the accusation made by incumbent president Nicanor Duarte that he will pursue the radical populist agenda of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez or Bolivia's Evo Morales. See BBC and CNN.com.

Being land-locked (like Bolivia), Paraguay seldom garners notice in the outside world. It ranks among the lower income countries in Latin America, but there is not as much desperate poverty as there is in places like Brazil or Bolivia. The ruling Colorado Party, conservative in orientation, maintained control of the country even after the downfall of dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989, and even after scandals that turned violent in the 1990s. Paraguay's transition toward democratic rule has been frustratingly slow, mainly because of widespread corruption. It is the center of contraband traffic to and from Argentina and Brazil, including drugs and weapons.

Paraguay has a fascinating culture in which the Spanish settlers intermingled with the indigenous people rather than conquering and exploiting them. That is why nearly all Paraguayans today speak both Spanish and the Guarani languages. It's rather appropriate that a former Catholic priest like Lugo would campaign on helping Paraguay's poor people, since the country was originally run by Jesuit missionaries, as depicted in the movie, The Mission, starring Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons. (See IMDB.com.) Inasmuch as Paraguay is a symbol of pluralistic tolerance, with relatively few instances of political violence in its history, it would be nice if Lugo opts for the more pragmatic and inclusive style of Brazil's Lula da Silva and avoids the temptation of radical populism.