After six decades, Paraguay's ruling party loses presidency

McClatchy NewspapersApril 20, 2008 

ASUNCION, Paraguay — A former Roman Catholic bishop scored a historic win Sunday in this country's presidential election, ending the 61-year reign of what had been the world's longest ruling party.

With 92 percent of polling stations reporting, Fernando Lugo had received 40.8 percent of 1.73 million ballots cast. Running a distant second was former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar, the candidate of the long-ruling Colorado Party, who won 30.7 percent of votes. Former general and ex-Colorado member Lino Oviedo won 22 percent.

Joyous Lugo supporters shot off firecrackers and filled the streets of Asuncion on Sunday night, as soon as exit polls indicating a Lugo win appeared. As victory became more certain, thousands poured into the streets, waving Paraguayan flags and chanting Lugo's name. Paraguayans living in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires danced in the streets to celebrate.

Lilia Acuna said she had never known another government in her 57 years and was desperate for change. Joining thousands of people in downtown Ascuncion, she hugged friends and called Sunday "the beginning of a new era for Paraguay."

"I was born and grew up and still live with the same policy and the same regime," Acuna said, "and now, finally, we have ended that."

Many in the crowd spoke of the historic nature of Sunday's election, a sentiment Lugo expressed to hundreds of frenzied supporters.

"Today, we can affirm that the little people are able to win," Lugo said. "Equally, I want to tell you this is the Paraguay of our dreams, the Paraguay of many colors, the Paraguay of all faces, the Paraguay of everybody."

Sunday's election ends a Colorado lock on power in this 6.8 million-person country that began in 1947, when the party seized control after a bloody civil war. The Colorado period also included the 35-year regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who was ousted in a 1989 coup.

Ovelar conceded defeat at 9 p.m. EST Sunday. "We recognize our defeat in the presidential race and we salute the candidacy of the Alliance (Lugo's coalition) and we inaugurate in Paraguay a time of reconciliation and construction, together with a destiny that Paraguay needs to affirm."

Lugo's victory adds to a regional trend of leftist, outsider leaders defeating longtime establishment governments in elections. The 56-year-old has pledged to more equitably distribute land and other resources to poor Paraguayans and is known as "the bishop of the poor." He has said, however, that he'll steer his own course and not ally with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic.

Lugo is scheduled to take office Aug. 15, ushering in the first transition of power in Paraguay not marked by coups or other political violence. Lugo would be allowed to serve one 5-year term and could not run for re-election.

"Everything will be different after this election," said Oscar Ayala, editor of the Paraguayan newspaper Ultima Hora. "But Lugo is still an incognito for many of us, and he doesn't have a strong political structure behind him. There will definitely be some difficulties."

Sunday's victory capped a remarkable political story that began in March 2006, when the politically unknown bishop was invited to speak to a massive anti-government rally in Asuncion, Paraguay's capital.

The tall, bearded bishop ended up igniting the crowd and has been a presidential front-runner ever since. Lugo resigned from the priesthood in December 2006 and now leads the Patriotic Alliance for Change, a diverse coalition of parties that includes Paraguay's socialist party and the center-right Liberal Party.

How Lugo will head such a politically diverse base and how he'll control an enormous government bureaucracy filled with Colorado loyalists are big unknowns, analysts said.

Bricklayer Enrique Oscar Gonzalez, who voted for Lugo Sunday, said the details were less important this Election Day than voting out the Colorados.

"People are fed up with the government and are demanding change," said Gonzalez, a former Colorado loyalist. "I see people on the street reduced to looking through trash to eat. That can't continue."

More than a third of Paraguayans live in poverty, making the country South America's second poorest, ahead of Bolivia. About 800,000 Paraguayans, or more than 10 percent of the population, live outside the country and send home millions of dollars every year.

Paraguay also ranks among the most corrupt countries in Latin America, with government fraud, smuggling and drug trafficking widespread. The Colorado Party, in particular, is famous for its immense patronage system that makes the country's 200,000 person-strong bureaucracy a virtual extension of the party.

Unhappiness over the country's direction, as well as internal party divisions, ultimately doomed the Colorado's chances this year, Ayala said.

The in-fighting continued Sunday when former Vice President Luis Alberto Castiglioni again accused Ovelar and her mentor, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, of committing fraud in December, when Castiglioni lost the Colorado presidential candidacy by a razor-thin margin.

Colorado Sen. Juan Carlos Galaverna responded immediately by calling Castiglioni's statements "miserable expressions from a miserable person."

"The Colorados never recovered from the December internal elections," Ayala said. "They were never able to unite like they've done so many times before."

Colorado accusations that Lugo was involved in the kidnapping of a former president's daughter and other mudslinging never stuck.

Despite the loss, the Colorados will still control more legislative seats than any other party and will be able to put up stiff resistance, polls show. That led Colorado supporter Sonia Gonzalez to predict bitter political warfare between Lugo and his humiliated opponents.

"Something will happen, violence, divisions," Gonzalez said. "This will be a hard time for Paraguayans."

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