Horacio Cartes, a tobacco tycoon and political novice, had a resounding victory in the Paraguayan presidential elections, bringing back to power the Colorado Party, which had ruled the country with a tight grip for over sixty years until 2008.
Cartes, who has faced accusations of drug-trafficking, smuggling and money laundering, all of which he denied, won the elections with 45.8% of the votes, while runner-up Efrain Alegre obtained 36.94%. Altogether 68.57% of the more than 3.5 million Paraguayans eligible to vote cast their ballots not only for the President and Vice President, but also members of Congress, governors and representatives to the Mercosur parliament.
The Colorado party (ANR) also obtained 19 seats in the senate, 4 more than in the last elections, while the Liberal Party (PLRA) won 12 and lost 2. The left managed to increase its tally, with Frente Guasu gaining 5 seats, including the seat won by former President Fernando Lugo; the Partido Democratico Progresista gaining 3 seats; and Avanza País 2. This makes the left the third largest political force in Paraguay. UNACE, the party that allied with the PLRA for these elections, won 2 seats, marking a sharp decline from the 9 seats it held previously. Making up the total in the senate is one member from the Partido Encuentro Nacional and another from Patria Querida, who lost 3 seats.
In the lower house the ANR advanced from 6 seats to 8, the PLRA will remain on 7, UNACE declines from 4 seats to 1 and Avanza País gained one seat.
What the numbers are telling us and what does all this mean?
We are tired of traditional politicians
Paraguayans voted along the same lines as in 2008, electing a complete stranger to politics in the hope that we would bring change from within. Cartes is a political novice. He only came into politics a few years ago and bought his way into the Colorado Party. This was not only his first election as a candidate but also as a voter – it was the first time the new president of Paraguay actually voted in a national election.
But Paraguayans also seem to indicate that they did learn something from the 2008 elections, namely that you can’t bring to power a complete stranger with no political platform. That’s why they went for Cartes, a political novice, but running as the candidate of the country’s strongest political party.
Your alliances will cost you
The results of the elections represent a huge blow to the Liberal party. The message was loud and clear: “We don’t agree with how the party managed Lugo’s political trial and we don’t agree with your alliance with UNACE.” The PLRA lost not only the presidential bid but also seats in the senate and lower house, and governorships in places which had previously been their strongholds.
In a similar fashion the popular vote severely punished Patria Querida, in this case not because of their alliances but because of their involvement in the political trial of Lugo, which, coupled with a few other significant political mistakes in the past few months, seems to indicate the death of the party.
You can’t beat the Colorados unless you make alliances
There is one is a lesson that everyone from the opposition already knew: in Paraguay you cannot beat the Colorado Party without strong allies. Somehow they chose to forget this lesson, or believed that they could escape its logic. The Colorado Party is simply too smart, too old and too engrained in Paraguay’s politics and it keeps winning because “the devil knows more from being old than from being the devil”. Paraguayans have seen this truth demonstrated time after time. What we still need to discover is how to build strong alliances within the opposition in order to put up an effective fight against the Colorados.
The myth of the youth vote
With such a large portion of the population under 35 years old, there is a common dream in Paraguayan politics that the youth vote will change the political course of the country. Once again this proved to be a delusion. Youth in Paraguay are profoundly disenchanted with the entire political process and feel their vote makes no difference, which helps explain the low participation rate. On the other hand, the ‘hard vote’ – the vote based on parties rather than candidates – remains the dominatant force in politics.
Don’t underestimate the status quo and the strength of the client state
There is also a very strong message in this election about the power of the status quo and the client state. The overwhelming consolidation of the Colorado Party’s power in this election strongly indicates how conservative Paraguayan society still is.
While Cartes managed to obtained a resounding victory I doubt the honeymoon period will last long. Some of the main issues he will have to deal with include:
A new phase of international scrutiny of Paraguay
Cartes will need to provide strong and clear answers to the accusations of his involvement in drug trafficking, smuggling and money laundering. These issues will most likely turn international attention to issues of political stability and rampant corruption in the country, and he will need to be prepared to provide some convincing answers.
Increasing social needs
With the economy expected to grow at 13% this year, the problem in Paraguay is one of increased inequality, poverty, lack of access to basic services and disparities in landholdings. With close to 50% of the population under the poverty line, the new government will need to find a way to respond to increasing social needs and show that the economic boom the country is enjoying thanks to high commodity prices will not only benefit the oligarchs and traditional elites but also the population at large. Unless these issues are addressed at the root, expect to see increasing social unrest in the coming years.
Fragmented and divided society
Paraguayan society is and will continue to be fragmented over the main social issues confronting the country. After the complete fracture of the social contract after the ousting of Lugo in June 2012 the President will require more than sharp political acumen. He must also display strong social leadership to help unite the country around one common vision. It remains to be seen whether Cartes has this ability, but I very much doubt it.
Managing international relations
Cartes’ election places the regional leaders, Brazil and the United States, in a dilemma and raises questions about the position of Paraguay in Mercosur. Cartes will need to find a way to re-establish positive relations with the region and bring Paraguay out of the international isolation it has been suffering since June last year, a crucial and urgent matter for a landlocked country.
Cartes’ election raises significant concernsa among all Paraguayans who are concerned with politics. Under Cartes we can expect, over the next five years, continuing high levels of inequality in land ownership and social justice and poor or declining quality of our democratic institutions. This is certainly not a positive outlook for a nation in dire need of structural change.
* Claudia Pompa is a Paraguayan consultant with extensive experience in development and political risk analysis. She has worked for several international organizations and consulting companies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East