Paraguay Moves to Democracy


Asuncion, Paraguay.-- A mix of anticipation and concern swept through the press room at the Guarani Hotel in Asuncion last Sunday. After a full day of relatively calm and orderly balloting in Paraguay's first, fully democratic elections, it appeared someone was trying to sabotage the process.

The phone lines to the only independent source of poll results had been cut at noon. Despite a request from election observer and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, they still were not working four hours after the polls had closed.

Meanwhile, the streets of this capital had filled up with speeding cars waving red banners, blowing horns and lighting firecrackers, as supporters celebrated the victory of Juan Carlos Wasmosy, the candidate of the ruling Colorado Party.

"I don't think anyone should be claiming victory," said Mr. Carter with a grimace. "There are still no official returns."

The long, uncertain election night marked a historic turning point in Paraguay's transition to democracy.

For most of the last half century, the country was ruled by dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda. His regime was noted for abusing human rights, crippling the economy and institutionalizing corruption. Since his overthrow in a military coup four years ago, freedom of expression has flourished and, with it, a profound desire for change that was reflected in this presidential campaign.

"I'm 27 years old and I'm voting for the first time," said Liz Franco Marcada. "It's a free vote, without any pressure."

Ms. Marcada's candidate was Guillermo Caballero Vargas, of the National Encounter -- a new, independent political movement that in 10 months jumped to the top of opinion polls. As the scion of an old Paraguayan family and a successful businessman, Mr. Caballero Vargas argued he was best suited to complete the transition to democracy because he was free of past political entanglements.

But supporters of the Liberal Party's Domingo Laino contended his political history gave him the advantage. An economist and longtime activist in the Liberal Party, Mr. Laino was a symbol of resistance against Mr. Stroessner.

The leaders of the Colorado Party insisted their candidate, Mr. Wasmosy, was the only one who could revive Paraguay, in part because he is a "Colorado." As an engineer, he made his fortune working on Mr. Stroessner's Itaipu Dam, a project that brought an estimated $84 billion into Paraguay during the 1970s. It is now the largest hydro-electric plant in the Americas and a source of Colorado Party pride.

"This country needs stability to rebuild its economy," Mr. Wasmosy said. "The vast majority of public employees are Coloradans. There will be a great social trauma, an upheaval if there were a sudden change."

But going into vote, it looked like Paraguayans were willing to take that risk. Polls showed the independent Mr. Caballero Vargas ahead by a solid margin, in part because a bruising primary battle split the Colorado Party's base of support. The loser, Dr. Luis Argana, publicly campaigned against Mr. Wasmosy, charging he won the nomination by fraud. The press continually reported Colorado Party violations of elections laws, such as using state-owned cars to carry people to political rallies.

The campaign was further frustrated by a loyal Wasmosy supporter, Gen. Lino Cesar Oviedo, leader of Paraguay's most powerful military force. In a statement three weeks before the election, Gen. Oviedo threatened a coup if the Colorado Party did not win.

The heightened political environment prompted all three candidates to urge Mr. Carter to join 500 international observers to ensure the elections would be fair.

On election day last Sunday, an estimated 70 percent of Paraguay's 1.7 million registered voters went to the polls. For the vast majority, the process was organized and uneventful. They waited in lines, marked their ballots and dipped their fingers in indelible ink to prevent people from voting twice. There were scattered reports of vote buying, manipulation of the registration lists and military intimidation from the observers. A judge also ordered the borders closed to Paraguayans living in Argentina and Brazil, preventing them from voting.

Mr. Carter and his group of international observers praised the overall process as an historic event in the evolution of Paraguay's democracy. But they also condemned the closing of the border, and the cutting of the phone lines to the independent vote tabulation center.

"If the election had been quite close, within only two or three points, this could have been a crucial, even fatal error in the honoring of international observation," said Mr. Carter.

But the election was not close. Official returns, supported by the independent returns, show the Colorado Party won by a seven point margin. Analysts say it was the triumph of a powerful political machine and a historic tradition that runs deeper than most political affiliations.

Together, the Liberal and National Encounter parties won two-thirds of the legislative seats, making Mr. Wasmosy the first president in recent history without an automatic majority in Congress.

Historian Ken Cott of Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, says if Mr. Wasmosy is unable to create a governing coalition, that could create the greatest threat to the continuation of the process of democratization in Paraguay. "I think there will be a lot of Paraguayans, especially Coloradans, who say this is not working, we may need to return to some kind of strong leadership like we had under Stroessner."

Alexandra Marks is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor.

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