Paraguay: Fernando Lugo wins the elections

‘Red bishop’ breaks the power monopoly of the Colorado Party

Fernando Lugo, an ex-bishop and leader of the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), has won the elections in Paraguay. His success breaks the power of the Colorado party which had been in government for the last 62 years. Exit polls gave 34% of the vote for Lugo, 28.9% to Blanca Ovelar, the candidate of the Colorado party, and a similar percentage to the ex-general – recently released from prison for an attempted coup in a bid to undermine the electoral support for Lugo – Lino Oviedo.

This result adds to the ongoing process in Latin America with the election of radical populist or left-leaning leaders and is historical for Paraguay. No political party, currently in power anywhere in the world, had governed longer than the Colorado party, not even the Kim family’s Stalinist dynasty in North Korea or the Cuban Communist Party. The Colorado party has been in power since the end of the civil war in 1947. General Alfredo Stroesner overthrew a civilian president in 1954 and led a brutal dictatorship in the name of the party. When he was overthrown himself by another general in 1989 and later ‘free’ elections were introduced, the Colorado party managed to hold on to power.

That the Colorado party seemed to have written the “How to stay in power” manual explains the nervousness of the population, and their subsequent relief, when exit polls were confirmed. In one online poll for the newspaper ‘La Nacion’, 87% of the people thought it likely that the government was capable of snatching victory away from Lugo through committing fraud. These fears were confirmed with media reports on the inaccuracies in the electoral register. People who had fought, and died, in the triple alliance wars between 1865 and 1870 were found to be still eligible to vote. One columnist wrote: “Don Froilán Noguera, 140 years of age, has survived the war but it appears he succumbed to fraud”.

The ‘red bishop’

Fernando Lugo has been nicknamed the ‘Red Bishop’. His campaign slogan was “Change or Death”. In speeches Lugo has railed against corruption and injustice; “There are too many differences between the small group of 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery”. His opponents have tried to portay him as Paraguay’s next Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales. The outgoing president, Nicanor Duarte, warned the day before the elections about roaming groups of Venezuelans and Ecuadorians ready to set fire to petrol stations and private properties to provoke unrest in case of a Lugo defeat.

However, Lugo seems to model himself more on the Brazilian president Lula than on Chavez. “I am accustomed to saying, hunger and unemployment, like the lack of access to health and education, have no ideology”, he declared in an interview. He might find himself face to face with the politicians he admires. In the election campaign Lugo promised to negotiate higher prices for electricity with Brazil for their jointly owned Itaipú hydroelectric dam and conduct land reform in the world’s fourth largest soyabean exporter. The confrontation with the landowners will set the government on collision course with the agro-industrialists of its other big neighbour Argentina.

The danger is that if Lugo does not want to break with capitalism he could end up following Lula in implementing neo-liberal policies without the advantage that a growing Brazilian economy has been for the latter. It is also possible, however, that mass movements of the working class and poor push Lugo in taking a more radical stance.

Outbursts of joy

Instead of the predicted fire, fighting and riots, the streets of Asunción were filled with music, dancing and joy. Such is the desire of the masses for change – to end a situation were over 50% of Paraguayans live on less than $2 a day and 36% live in absolute poverty – that people cried for joy when the Colorado party admitted defeat. The festivities were not limited to the streets of Paraguayan cities. A huge spontaneous party broke out in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where approximately two million Paraguayans have sought refuge and also New York staged events to celebrate Lugo’s victory.

This victory can give confidence to the trade unions, political activists and the working class in Paraguay. It is another result for the ‘pink tide’ sweeping Latin America. However, in his first press conference Lugo has called on the political establishment to unite for the good of the country. His election is a big change but ultimately it will be his policies and will to confront the rich minority who, bound hand and foot to imperialism, rule Paraguay which will determine the success of his presidency. As his more radical colleagues in Bolivia and Venezuela show, not breaking with capitalism whilst trying to obtain concessions from the elite is a dangerous and frustrating strategy. The working class and poor must take advantage of the changed political situation to organise around a clear socialist programme that breaks with capitalism and imperialism.

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