Paraguay: Ex-bishop wins election; 6-decade rulers dumped

Fernando Lugo, a charismatic 56-year-old who advocated for the end of political corruption and economic disarray.

lugo 88 (photo credit: )
lugo 88
(photo credit: )
The world's longest-ruling political party is about to lose its six-decade grasp on power in Paraguay after a former Roman Catholic bishop won the country's presidential election. The Colorado Party's reign - which began in 1947 and was marked by the right-wing dictatorship of the late Gen. Alfredo Stroessner until his ouster in 1989 - was halted by Fernando Lugo, a charismatic 56-year-old who advocated for the end of political corruption and economic disarray. He beat Colorado Party rival Blanca Ovelar, a 50-year-old protege of President Nicanor Duarte who had sought to become Paraguay's first woman president in Sunday's election. The triumph of Lugo's eclectic opposition coalition - the Patriotic Alliance for Change - is the latest in a series of electoral wins by leftist, or center-left, leaders in South America. Mark Weisbrot, at the Washington think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Lugo's election is a sign of "deep and irreversible ... changes sweeping Latin America." But Lugo faces many challenges: 43 percent of the country's 6.5 million people live in poverty, illiteracy is high, 300,000 landless peasant farmers are clamoring for help and Paraguay's corruption is notorious. Lugo himself is a political newcomer, forging his anti-Colorado coalition just eight months ago. For now, the opposition is basking in its victory, holding gleeful celebrations in the Paraguayan capital and outlying cities. "You have decided what has to be done in Paraguay. You have decided to be a free Paraguay," Lugo told cheering thousands. Those who cheered him will be looking to him to keep his promises. Rodney Bernal, a hotel security guard who watched horn-honking opposition celebrations peter out early Monday, said promises by politicians - even Lugo - have made him weary. "Lugo made a lot of promises and we're tired of promises. We'll have to wait at least a year to see if he does anything, especially if he can give work to young people," he said. Riordan Roett, head of western hemisphere studies at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, echoed that sentiment, saying there is scarce wiggle room ahead. "The economic realities give the new teams very little room to maneuver," he said. Maria Ines Gonzalez, waving a flag of the opposition Liberals - the biggest force in the left-of-center coalition - said she hopes Lugo succeeds. "My dad is a construction worker but he's out of work because people don't have money to build anything," she said. "Lugo is a priest who understands the needs of the poor and I believe he is going to solve many social problems." The Colorado Party emerged from a 1947 civil war to begin its long rule in Paraguay. When Stroessner seized power in 1954, he recruited the party as an acquiescent "twin pillar" alongside his repressive military. After Stroessner's ouster, free elections led to a succession of Colorado presidents despite sporadic political unrest and party infighting. But countless corruption scandals blamed on party elites beginning in the late 1990s engendered new dissatisfaction with a party that still controlled a vast bureaucracy, jobs and, some say, Paraguay's judiciary Lugo became a bishop in 1994 but resigned the post in December 2006 to sidestep Paraguay's constitutional ban on clergy seeking office. He says he is neither on the left nor the right and has distanced himself from the region's more radical leaders, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Eight months ago, Lugo melded leftist unions, Indians and poor farmers into a coalition with Paraguay's main opposition party, the conservative Authentic Radical Party. He now vows to use his five-year term, which begins Aug. 15, to right economic problems dating back decades. With about 13,000 of 14,000 balloting stations counted, election officials said Lugo had 41 percent of the vote, Ovelar had 31 percent and former army chief Lino Oviedo had 22 percent.