Monday, April 21, 2008

Lugo's election win ends Colorado Party's long reign in Paraguay

A former Catholic bishop has ended Paraguay’s 60 year reign of one party rule by the right-wing Colorado Party after elections on the weekend. The electoral tribunal has declared 56 year old leftist Fernando Lugo Méndez the winner with 13,000 of the 14,000 ballot stations counted. Lugo, from the Patriotic Alliance for Change, took 41 percent of the vote, ten points clear of Colorado’s Blanca Ovelar who had hoped to become Paraguay’s first female president. Local analysts are putting down Lugo’s victory to a mix of poor policies and division within the Colorado Party and Lugo’s own personal charisma.

Lugo joined 80,000 of his supporters who rallied in the “Pantheon of Heroes” central square of the capital Asunción to celebrate his victory. The scenes of joy are captured in videos captured by the Spanish language Ultima Hora (Asunción’s main newspaper). Supporters lit firecrackers while cars clogged streets honking their horns. One Lugo supporter said "We are confident he will govern with hand of God. He represents hope ... something new for our country." Another supporter had gone to the polls fearing his vote would not be respected, but he was more certain about what he though Lugo could deliver. "Many things ... jobs, health, education ... not for me but for the future of my three children," he said. Lugo himself said "Today we can affirm that the little ones can also win.” But the real hard work will begin after the celebrations end.

Despite ruling since the 1940s, the Colorado Party have not brought prosperity to go with their electoral stability. Paraguay is one of the least developed nations (see pdf report) in Latin America with 43 percent of its 6.5 million population living in poverty and the gap between rich and poor still rising. Paraguay is a landlocked agrarian nation relying on soybean, cotton and other farm exports. More than a quarter of its population have been forced to emigrate to earn a living. Ninety percent of the nation's land is owned by less than two percent of the population, and drug trafficking, crime and the black market are rampant. Periodic political unrest and chronic economic malaise have continually shaken its fragile democracy.

The country endured a victorious but unsatisfactory Chaco War (a territorial dispute with Bolivia) in the 1930s and then a Civil War in the 1940s before General Alfredo Stroessner took power in a military coup in May 1954. He was re-elected president seven times ruling almost continuously with support from the military and the Colorado Party. During his 34-year reign political freedoms were severely limited and opponents of the regime were persecuted in the name of national security and anti-communism. In 1989 Stroessner was overthrown in a military coup headed by General Andres Rodriguez. Presidential and congressional elections were held on May 1 1989. Rodriguez easily won the Presidency as the Colorado Party candidate with a reform agenda.

While a succession of Colorado Party candidates (Wasmosy, Cubas, Macchi, and retiring incumbent Nicanor Duarte) followed in Rodriguez’s steps as president, none followed up his reforms. For the 2008 election, the Patriotic Front for Change emerged as a pluralist coalition of about 20 Indian, peasant and union organisations. They range from leftist groups to the conservative Radical Authentic party, Paraguay's largest opposition group. Lugo himself has tried to distance himself from the more leftwing elements of his coalition "The world 'leftist' is being used lately in Latin America and possibly with mistaken concepts," he said. "I believe in the self-determination of the people, in recovering one's sovereignty and independence."

Lugo was ordained a Catholic priest in 1977 as a member of the Society of the Divine Word. He was appointed Bishop of San Pedro in 1994. Lugo gained a reputation as “Bishop of the Poor” became renowned for speaking out on behalf of Paraguay’s lower classes. In 2005 he announced his desire to pursue his political ambitions. His actions prompted a warning from the Vatican which said his candidacy was “in clear contrast” to his responsibilities as a bishop and threatened suspension. Lugo stood down from his religious role but also still had a congressional impediment to confront as Paraguay’s constitution banned members of the clergy from seeking political office.

But after decades of rule by the Colorados enriching the wealthy at the expense of the indigenous population and poor Paraguayans, Lugo was ready to ride the winds of change. In 2006, over 50,000 demonstrators including unions and indigenous movements took over the capital, Asunción, to protest against Colorado rule. Lugo, who is from one of Paraguay’s poorest areas and who has often spoken out forcefully against poverty and inequality. Opinion polls since then have kept Lugo consistently 10 percent ahead of his rivals. Speaking after his victory last night, Lugo said the result showed this was the Paraguay he had dreamt about - a country for everyone. "I invite Paraguayans of all political types, even the ones who don't share our ideals, to help this country that was once great be great again,” he said.

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