Elections Bring 'Same Old Thing'-For Now: Paraguay's Ruling Party Keeps Grip on Power, but There Is Cause for Hope. (Analysis)

By Hebblethwaite, Margaret | National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Elections Bring 'Same Old Thing'-For Now: Paraguay's Ruling Party Keeps Grip on Power, but There Is Cause for Hope. (Analysis)

Hebblethwaite, Margaret, National Catholic Reporter

It seems to have escaped the notice of the world's press that April 27 was the Paraguayan general election. Paraguay's neighbor, Argentina, had an election on the same day. The two countries are covered by the same correspondents and they could not be in two places at once. But Paraguay is always the forgotten country.

As someone who has lived in the Paraguayan countryside for two and a half years. I should declare a bias, but the Paraguayan election seems to me more important than the Argentinean one, for it produced a result. Argentina's did nothing more than select its two presidential candidates for the second round on May 18: former President Carlos Menem, with 24 percent, and Nestor Kirchner from the same party, the Partido Justicialista, with 21 percent.

So what is the significance of the victory of Nicanor Duarte Frutos, as new president of Paraguay, with 37 percent of the votes, and of the general victory of his party--the Colorados--at every level of government? The election selected diputados (the equivalent of a member of parliament). senators, departmental governors and departmental councilors for the next five years.

At one level it is an unsurprising result: The Colorado party has already been in power for 56 years. The word that is heard all around is continuismo--more of the same old thing. Yet continuismo itself has its fascination. How is it that Paraguay, which allegedly is a democratic country, is in fact in the grip of an irremovable corrupt gang? With international observers all around, and a splendid electoral law prescribing long prison sentences for electoral fraud, how exactly does the cheating take place?

At another level, the Paraguayan result is utterly amazing--not for the man who won, but for the man who came from nowhere and nearly won, Pedro Fadul. He overtook the candidate of the second party, the Liberals, two weeks before the election, though in the end he polled slightly below him--21 percent, against 23 percent for Julio Cesar Yoyito Franco. If Paraguay had a second round like Argentina and so many other South American countries, and if Fadul had gotten just over 2 percent more, then he might have picked up all the other anti-Colorado votes and become the winner. But in any case his meteoric rise suggests that he should be taken as a serious contender for the future. People here are keenly aware that in neighboring Brazil, the current president, Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, had to fight five elections before finally winning.

Fadul is a committed Catholic and a member of the Schoenstatt movement--a Marian movement that is widespread among the middle class in this part of Latin America. He has used money made in his career as a financier to cofound the church-run project, Paraguay Jaipotava ("The Paraguay that we want," in Guarani), which encourages the Paraguayan peasantry to plan for the future of the country.

Fadul enjoys the barely disguised support of all sectors of the church to such an extent that there was a row in the cathedral of Asuncion on the Friday night before the election. An ecumenical religious service had been arranged for all the presidential candidates, but both Nicanor and Yoyito Franco were furious over the favor shown to Fadul, who was greeted with applause from the congregation when he entered, and was the first to be greeted by Archbishop Pastor Cuquejo. This provoked Nicanor to clench his fist in rage rather than extend his hand, as he protested to Cuquejo about the error in protocol. Meanwhile Yoyito had been allocated a place behind the other two candidates, on the grounds that he was the last to accept the invitation. He disdained it, turned up late, and sat at the back.

Fadul has become an icon for a new era of honesty in politics. And to do this he has to break the mold completely, for politicians are the most distrusted sector of society (and the church the most trusted). He entered politics only eight months ago.

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Elections Bring 'Same Old Thing'-For Now: Paraguay's Ruling Party Keeps Grip on Power, but There Is Cause for Hope. (Analysis)


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