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Paraguay: Impeachment of President Lugo

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Read MoreMove against Lugo will boost Colorado Party

lugo1Fernando Lugo: oustedThe move was not popular, even among non-supporters of Lugo. It will intensify citizen disdain for members of Congress and will heighten political instability in the run-up to the April 2013 presidential elections. Governance prospects may well deteriorate as the resurgent Colorado Party reacts strongly against likely efforts by the Franco administration to use state funds now at its disposal to boost the electoral prospects of the lacklustre PLRA. The new Franco government will face a heavy task in repairing damaged relations with Latin American partners right across the ideological spectrum.

The removal of finance minister Dionisio Borda, the architect of Paraguay’s greatly improved macro-economic performance over the past decade, will dismay local investors and international credit agencies. Ironically, in spite of his own disappointing record as president, the widely perceived undemocratic nature of his ousting will help to counter the tarnished political image of Lugo and enable him to stand for a Senate seat in 2013 as head of the left-wing Frente Guasu alliance.

The impeachment

After the lower house of Congress had initiated the move by a 76-1 majority the day before, in a lightening session on 22 June lasting less than two hours the Senate impeached President Lugo by 39 votes to four. The trial was based on five counts of ‘bad performance’, none of which involved accusations of corruption. Foremost among them was the alleged complicity of Lugo in the worst single incident of political violence for decades on 15 June when six police and eleven civilians were killed in a shoot-out during a police operation to clear landless protestors in the northern department of Canindeyú. The 2,000 hectare property at Campo Morombí had been spuriously obtained during the Stroessner dictatorship by businessman and former Senator Blas Riquelme under the guise of land reform. However no evidence at all of Lugo’s involvement was presented at the trial.

The Congressional move came shortly after the first successful ‘social media’ protest in Paraguay was directed against it. Congress’s image had deteriorated sharply after a number of scandals in recent years – its refuse to initiate impeachment proceedings against supreme court judges accused of blatant corruption, its cuts to budget votes for mother-and-child health and a incipient anti-poverty conditional cash transfer programme, its refusal to publish the obligatory financial declarations of its members, its repeated postponement of the introduction of personal income tax, and most recently its refusal to countenance an end to the electoral system of closed party lists.

In late May a swift Twitter-base campaign mobilized thousands of young professionals outside Congress, forcing it to reverse a decision to overturn a presidential veto and award a $30m budget to the bloated Electoral Commission for the hiring of 5,000 new staff, ostensibly to oversee the upcoming elections, but widely regarded as ‘political operators’ with the task of bringing out the vote.

The virulent Congressional response to the killings – pressing impeachment less than ten months before elections take place on 21 April 2013 to find a successor to Lugo – reflects the heightened political profile that growing inequality in access to land is taking as soya bean production expands rapidly under the control of Brazilian immigrants. Most members of Congress are rural landowners and have long accused Lugo of tacitly supporting a radical landless movement, Liga Nacional de Carperos (National League of Tent-dwellers), that during his presidency has displaced the two traditional peasant organisations, MCNOC and FNC, in privileged access to the presidency. They even accused him of links to an incipient guerrilla movement, the Ejercito del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP).

The ‘impeachment expreso’ was only made possible after the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA) party, hitherto in a tacit alliance with Lugo, decided to support the impeachment proposal made by the opposition Colorado Party, after which five PLRA ministers resigned from the government. It is believed that the deal was brokered by Horacio Cartes, millionaire businessman involved in the production and ‘trading’ to Brazil of cigarettes, who met with PLRA leaders over the weekend following the killings. After joining the party only in September 2010, Cartes is the leading presidential contender of the Colorado Party although his popularity has slumped in recent months following press revelations of his alleged involvement in narcotics trade and money-laundering.

As architect of the move, Cartes reacted after Lugo appointed Rubén Candia Amarilla, a supporter of Lilian Samaniego, Colorado party president and rival for the presidential nomination, as new interior minister in response to the killings. Cartes may have moved swiftly to eliminate Lugo, fearing that he was seeking to broker an electoral alliance in 2013 between the Frente Guasu and her powerful faction of the Colorado party. After PLRA president Blas Llano tried unsuccessfully to halt the appointment of Candia in favour of a Liberal, anger at Lugos’ ‘treachery’ in plotting with Samaniego led his erstwhile allies in the PLRA to bury their deep divisions and line up behind Cartes’ initiative.

Profound land tenure inequality

The new government has promised to address Paraguay’s deep problem of land tenure although little can be expected in such a short space of time and without a rural cadastre. Franco came a poor third in the 1 April ‘home delivery’ poll to choose the PLRA presidential candidate in 2013. The party’s electoral commission declared party president Blas Llano as the winner but this was disputed by Efrain Alegre, who is threatening to stand as an independent. Franco’s chances of using this interim presidency to strengthen the PLRA vote around a consensus candidate are limited. He will have to oversee a scramble for lucrative ministerial posts within his faction-ridden party which is more likely to create further dissension. Fears have even been expressed that Franco will use his new powers to resurrect his own bid for the party presidential nomination, egged on by the powerful Franco clan, based in the Fernando de la Mora suburb of Asunción, of which he is a leading member.

The Franco government also faces diplomatic isolation. Reaction to the impeachment within Latin America was very negative, with criticism ranging from Chile and Colombia through to Venezuela and Bolivia. Mercosur partners Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have recalled their ambassadors and have suspended Paraguay from membership, refused to allow the Franco government to attend the forthcoming Mercosur summit meeting in Mendoza, Argentina.


* Andrew Nickson is Honorary Reader in Public Management and Latin American Studies
University of Birmingham