After 61 years in power, Paraguay's ruling party faces defeat

ASUNCION, Paraguay — For 61 years, the Colorado Party's recipe for holding on to power in this impoverished country has never failed.

First, the world's longest-ruling political party built an army of loyal supporters with a patronage system that obliterated any distinction between the government and the party. The Colorados then created a near-religious mythology that equated defying the party with treason. If all that didn't work, the party simply stole elections.

In the run-up to Paraguay's general elections this Sunday, however, the recipe no longer seems be working. Polls suggest that the Colorados will be ousted from power and that the new president will be former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo, who was a political nobody two years ago.

It's an amazing turnaround for a party that's been in power longer than most people in this nation of 6.8 million can remember. A Lugo victory also would continue a regional trend that's seen leftist or outsider candidates end decades of rule by establishment elites, which in Paraguay includes the 35-year regime of dictator Alfredo Stroessner.

While many fear that the Colorado Party may once again cheat its way to victory on Sunday, expectations for change are so high that any revelation of fraud could ignite political chaos, including street violence, said analyst Alfredo Boccia Paz.

"There have never been distinctions between what's the party and what's the electoral system," Boccia Paz said. "On election day, it's like you're competing against the Paraguayan state if you're in the opposition. But there's a big fatigue factor now with all of this. There's a big demand for change."

The latest poll by the newspaper Ultima Hora found Lugo winning 34.5 percent of the vote, with the Colorado candidate, former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar, in third place with 28.5 percent. Paraguay has neither a run-off nor a re-election system, so whoever wins the most votes Sunday will serve one five-year term as president.

Public discontent with both the Colorados and the state of the country has fueled the party's misfortunes this year, polls show. Conflicts within the party also have crippled its electoral machinery.

Slightly smaller in area than California, this land-locked country is South America's second poorest, with about a third of its residents living in poverty.

The country also is known as a haven for fugitive Nazis, smugglers and drug traffickers, and it ranked in the 25th percentile of the world's most corrupt countries in an index compiled last year by the watchdog group Transparency International.

For poor Paraguayans such as Trifina Escobar, a housewife in the capital of Asuncion, more than 60 years of Colorado rule is to blame, and she said that many of her poor neighbors planned to vote for Lugo this Sunday.

"We are in bad shape, and we need change," the 59-year-old said. "We have people who don't eat, who are poor, poor, poor, people who live in tents.

"But Paraguayans are so stupid that if you give them just some sugar during election season, they stop being Paraguayans. They vote against their interests."

Lugo has captured disillusioned voters by playing up his story as a former bishop who worked for years in the country's poorest state and entered politics only after he was invited to speak at a massive anti-government rally in March 2006.

The 58-year-old declared his candidacy last year after he left the priesthood, and he's led in the polls ever since. He leads a coalition of parties, the Patriotic Alliance for Change that spans the ideological spectrum.

In a Friday press conference, he said that he'd try to renegotiate unpopular energy treaties with neighboring Brazil and Argentina and redistribute land more equitably to peasant farmers. He said that Paraguay, under his leadership, wouldn't "fall into submission to any other bigger country."

Seizing on such positions, critics have speculated that Lugo would ally himself with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other leftist governments that have denounced U.S. influence in the region. As a bishop, he was a proponent of the Roman Catholic Church's leftist Liberation Theology wing.

Lugo rejected such speculation, saying, "We believe in our own project with our own policies."

Sen. Juan Manuel Marcos, a leader of Lugo's coalition, said that fixing the country's corruption-saddled government would be a top priority for a Lugo administration.

"The size of Paraguay's economy is tiny compared to what it could be," Marcos said. "Nobody wants to invest here because there's no legal security here."

Colorado leaders also have promised change even as they defend current President Nicanor Duarte Frutos and decades of one-party rule.

Sen. Martin Chiola, a Colorado leader, pointed out that the country's economy grew by 6.4 percent last year, largely fueled by rising soybean exports, and he predicted more growth.

"The macroeconomic situation is good, and our house is in order," Chiola said. "We just need more social programs that can bring up people's quality of life."

Nonetheless, Chiola and other Colorado leaders have fretted about their party's chances on Sunday, and they've shifted the Colorados' political apparatus into high gear.

In Asuncion, thousands of public employees have hit the streets flying the party's crimson flag to show their support for Colorado candidates. The federal government commands a bloated bureaucracy of some 200,000 people, with the vast majority belonging to the Colorado Party.

The party also runs hundreds of neighborhood chapters that deliver government aid and even operate college dormitories that are open only to party members.

While attending a Colorado rally in the central Paraguayan town of Carapegua this week, security guard Carlos Ivarola said the party has always taken care of him and his family. Four years ago, the party even paid for a coffin and a funeral when his mother-in-law died.

"We will never change our party nor our church," Ivarola said. "It's unthinkable that we could lose."

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