Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

A Democracy's "Poor Performance": The Impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

A Democracy's "Poor Performance": The Impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo

Article excerpt

"Today it is not Fernando Lugo who is deposed; it is the Paraguayan history, its democracy, which has been deeply wounded."1

I. INTRODUCTION

At 10:00 a.m. on June 21, 2012, seventy-six of the eighty mem- bers of the Paraguayan Chamber of Deputies voted to impeach the country's democratically-elected president, Fernando Lugo Mén- dez.2 The Senate received the charges and ordered Lugo to pre- sent his defense the next day.3 After a brief Senate trial at noon on June 22, 2012, thirty-nine of the forty-five senators voted to convict Lugo of the charges against him and remove him from office.4 At 6:00 p.m. that evening, Lugo's vice president was sworn in to replace him.5

What prompted this lightning-fast impeachment? What did Pres- ident Lugo do to compel such an overwhelming majority of Con- gress to vote for his abrupt impeachment and removal four years into his term and just ten months before elections that would have democratically replaced him?6 Was President Lugo caught embez- zling millions, stealing from the nation's coffers, or accepting corrupt bribes? No-not even close. Lugo was not accused of any crime, offense, official wrongdoing, human rights abuse, or consti- tutional violation. Rather, the Chamber of Deputies relied on lan- guage in Article 225 of the Paraguayan Constitution that allows impeachment of a president based on mal desempeño de sus funciones or "poor performance of his duties."7

No Paraguayan law defines this "poor performance" standard for presidential impeachment, and it had never been employed to remove a president from office. Instead of reserving the provision for a narrow category of egregious acts, the Paraguayan Congress chose to interpret "poor performance" broadly. Following this pre- cedent, any future Paraguayan president that loses the approval of an absolute majority of Congress could be removed overnight for anything that Congress deems "poor performance." This consti- tutes a dangerous lowering of the bar for an act as serious as depos- ing a head of state. It eliminates the fundamental principles of separation of powers and checks and balances that are established in the Paraguayan Constitution and essential to a strong and stable presidential democracy.

Lugo acknowledged the effect Congress's action had on Para- guay's democratic institution. In a nationwide broadcast after the Senate voted to remove him from office, Lugo soberly declared, "Today it is not Fernando Lugo who is deposed; it is the Paraguayan history, its democracy, which has been deeply wounded . . . . I hope those who did this recognize the gravity of their actions."8 Latin American countries also acknowledged the breakdown in democratic order-over a dozen presidents in the region recalled their ambassadors from Paraguay, with the presi- dent of Argentina characterizing the ouster as a "parliamentary coup."9 The Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the South American Union (Unasur) invoked their democracy clauses to sus- pend Paraguay from these regional organizations.10

This Note will argue that to create a more democratic balance of power between the executive and legislative branches, Paraguay should amend Article 225 of its constitution by replacing the vague "poor performance" standard for impeachment with a "constitu- tional violation" standard.11 This solution will give more power and independence to the executive while maintaining an appropri- ate check on its authority.

Part II of this Note describes Paraguay's difficult transition to democracy and the political context that led to Lugo's removal. Part III provides background information on the Paraguayan Con- stitution and the structure of its presidential democracy as con- trasted with parliamentary systems. Part IV surveys the grounds for presidential impeachment in other Latin American constitutions, as well as incidents of impeachment in the region, to demonstrate how Lugo's impeachment was unprecedented.

Part V explains how Lugo's impeachment and removal violated the principles of a presidential democracy adopted in the Paraguayan Constitution. …

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