Latin America in the modern era, has struggled with a peaceful transfer of power, once a presidential term in office has been completed. Politicians on the right and more recently on the left, will attempt to cling to power, by changing constitutional and election laws. As a result, dictatorships have become quite common. Paraguay has been no different in this regard.
Alfredo Stroessner served as President of Paraguay from 1954 to 1989. He ascended to the office after leading an army coup, the year he seized power.
His 35 year long rule, was marked by an unbroken period of repression. It remains the longest in modern South American history.
As a staunch anti-communist, he maintained the crucial support of the United States. This was despite the ruthless suppression of any political opposition, which included torture.
Stroessner’s supporters during these years, packed the legislature and ran the court system. He constantly overruled its democratic constitution and enforced a cult of personality. The Constitution was modified in 1967 and in 1977, to legalize his six consecutive elections to the Presidency.
During this era membership in the Colorado Party was needed for job promotions, free health care and other government provided social services.
Alternative political viewpoints were not tolerated and it was dangerous, to not follow the official government line on policy. It is this arduous period of time, that the political opposition in Paraguay is concerned with and wishes to avoid for a second time.
President Horacio Cartes in office since 2013, moved this week to amend the constitution of Paraguay. It will permit him to be re-elected in 2018. As a tobacco magnate he has promoted pro-business reforms, which he claims need to go forward to safeguard his economic program.
Economic growth during the tenure of President Cartes has been relatively good. He can make the claim that his economic policies are working. The year before he became President, the economy had actually shrunk by -1.2%.
Rates of economic expansion in 2013 reached a high of 14%. In 2014, it was 4.7% and dropped further to 3.1% in 2015. It increased to 3.5% in 2016 and is expected to be 3.6% in 2017.
GDP per capita is estimated at $4,110 USD which is $9761USD PPP.
Inflation has stabilized at a moderate 4.1% and unemployment has declined to 5.5% from 6.0% in 2014.
Budget deficits have averaged 1.5% of GDP. Public debt although increasing, is still a low 23.8% of GDP. Corporate and personal income tax rates are both relativity low, at just 10%.
The economic success of Paraguay in the last few years, has been sustained by an investment-friendly climate and strong fiscal discipline. There are some who already refer to the country as Little China.
At the same time corruption remains widespread. Officials at all levels of government, the judiciary and the police engage in dishonest practices with impunity. Cases can languish for years in the court system without resolution, and offenses often go unpunished, due to political influence of judicial authorities.
Although there has been some improvement, a persistent lack of transparency at all levels of government, continues to hurt investor confidence. This lack of clarity, is also slowing the emergence of a broader-based private sector.
The governing conservative Colorado Party is joining with several opposition legislators, to propose changes to the senate’s procedural rules. This in turn will allow the introduction of a re-election bill. A similar attempt was only barely rejected in August of 2016.
The Colorado Party has held power in the legislature, for all but four of the past 70 years. The leadership has enormous resources to bring to bear, in trying to modify the present election laws.
Opposition parties and a few dissidents in the Colorado Party, are attempting resistance towards legislation that will permit re-election. They insist that if the law is changed, a dictatorship becomes increasingly likely.
Many of these same individuals are now alleging, that a number of senators have been bribed into supporting the amendment to the Constitution.
The dissenters seem to have the public backing in their protest. Polls now suggest 77% of the citizenry, do not want a probable re-election, that is to be arranged by constitutional amendment.
Earlier this week, riot police sealed off access to the Congress. President Cartes is supposedly monitoring the events in the legislature, quite attentively. His political future is being decided amidst a great deal of rancor.
Inside the Congress, legislators were trading insults and even physical threats after the Speaker of the House delayed the vote by two days. It is reported a pro-Cartes senator seized a microphone and after declaring himself Senate President, forced the legislative changes through, with a mere show of hands.
A vote on re-election itself, is expected to be passed in the coming days.
The present crisis is further damaging democracy in Paraguay. It had already been dealt a major blow, following the impeachment of the leftist former President Fernando Lugo in 2012. He had ridden a wave of leftist popularity in South America, which propelled him into the Presidency in 2008.
President Lugo was removed from office in a rapid trial. He came to power on a pledge to help the poor and was looked upon favorably with this constituency.
Subsequently his supporters were amassed in the streets, following his ouster. Riot police had been called up and were turning back supporters, with tear gas and water cannons. Further disturbances were only averted, when Lugo gave a televised address, saying he would comply with the Senate decision.
The former President had been impeached after four years on five charges of malfeasance in office. This included a supposed role in an encounter between landless farmers and the police. The deadly confrontation would lead to 17 deaths.
The five hour impeachment trial came just came just one day after the lower legislature voted to impeach him. 39 senators voted to dismiss him,while four Senators voted against the measure, leaving just two, who were absent from the proceedings.
His removal from office, created an outcry among the leftist leaders of Ecuador and Venezuela. President Correa of Ecuador refused to recognize the new government and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the time, called the new government illegal and illegitimate.
The former President was not in attendance, during the chaotic congressional situation on Tuesday of this week. Most of his supporters in the Senate however, still voted for the changes. Mr. Lugo is gambling on a constitutional amendment that may well work in his favor.
According to recent polls, the former bishop would have the support of more than half the electorate if he was able to run again in 2018.
He remains popular as a champion of the poor and underprivileged. This is important in a nation where many have lost faith in a justice system, that seems indifferent to their plight.
For example, Codehupy an umbrella organization of human rights groups, has documented the killings of more than 120 small scale farmers known as campesinos, since the end of the dictatorship in 1989. Of course, none of these have been officially investigated by the government.
In a country where the survival of many families is still dependent on subsistence farming, tensions over land ownership, have intensified since the inauguration of President Cartes. A total of 17.1% of the total GDP still originates from agriculture.
The other sectors of GDP are comprised of 27.3% for industry and 55.6% for services.
Paraguay still remains divided over whether to allow former presidents to run for reelection. Time is running out, to decide who will be permitted to declare their candidacy for the elections of 2018. The two former presidents Fernando Lugo and Nicanor Duarte Frutos and President Cartes are all ineligible, unless the electoral law is changed.
Opponents to the change in the electoral system, include likely 2018 presidential candidates themselves. They are Mario Ferreiro the mayor of Asuncion, Efrain Alegre, leader of the Liberal Party and Colorado Senator, Mario Abdo Benitez.
One of the first obstacles to a constitutional amendment, is the debate over whether a current president must resign, in order to be eligible for re-election. This is followed by when a resignation needs to take place, in advance of the election date.
Supporters of President Cartes wanted him to be able to run, while still in office. This is customary in many other nations, including in Latin America.
Advocates for former President Lugo, insist that President Cartes must step down from office first. They are fully aware, that Cartes would be able to use state resources to help his candidacy.
In addition, it was well known that Cartes was the principal behind the scenes person, who brought about the downfall of former President Lugo.
Colorado Party officials finally acquiesced, that President Cartes will resign the presidency, six months prior to the April 22, 2018 election.
A near term resolution will become necessary soon, if President Cartes is to qualify for an election little more than a year away.