Backroom political manoeuvring of questionable-at-best legality has struck deep in Paraguayan political consciousness, bringing outraged protestors to the streets and setting off major rioting.
Although Paraguay is open to investors, its political system is notably closed to those outside the governing Asociación Nacional Republicana – Partido Colorado (‘National Republican Association – Colorado Party’, usually simplified to ‘the Colorado Party’). The right-wing party has governed Paraguay for all but five of the past 69 years, most of that time as a one-party dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year reign was notorious for its corruption and brutality. As a result, the country has virtually no history of the orderly transfer of power between ideologically opposed presidents. Indeed, Paraguay has never had a president outside of the Colorado Party who was both democratically elected and allowed to serve out the entirety of his term. Palace coups and military uprisings have historically been much more common means of beginning and ending presidential terms than elections.
The cycle of violent and non-democratic seizures of power seemed to end in 2008, when the Colorado Party ceded power to Fernando Lugo, a left-wing Catholic bishop opposed to the Colorados, after he won a relatively free and fair election. Lugo’s tenure came to an abrupt end, however, in 2012, when the lower house of congress voted to impeach him on dubious grounds, with the senate holding a trial and removing him the next day. Given that Lugo was given just hours to prepare and present a defence, many regional countries refused to recognise the legitimacy of the impeachment, instead considering it to be a ‘parliamentary coup’.
It was in this political atmosphere that current president Horacio Cartes was elected.
You can’t always get what you want: Cartes’ frustrated attempt at re-election
After the fall of the Stroessner dictatorship, the new constitution adopted by Paraguay reflected an effort to ensure that no head of state could remain in power for more than a single five-year term. The document explicitly prohibits all who have ever held the presidency from running for a second term in office, and, in a nod to Paraguay’s history of coups and de facto ‘powers behind the throne’, even bans the sitting vice president from running for the presidency as well as any former president from assuming the vice presidency. Horacio Cartes made little attempt to hide his displeasure with these constitutional provisions, and spent much of 2016 attempting to modify them in a way that would allow him to hold onto power and stand for re-election in 2018.
Cartes’ attempts quickly ran up against a barrier posed by the constitution itself, which lays out two ways by which changes to the system of government can be made: a method called enmienda (‘amendment’), in which both houses of congress pass a constitutional change and then subject it to a referendum, and a much more complex method called reforma (‘reform’) in which members of a constitutional convention are elected with the power to draft a whole new constitution. Unfortunately for Cartes, the constitution specifically prohibits using the enmienda process to abolish term limits, meaning that if he wanted to act legally, he would have to turn to the much more difficult and politically risky measure of opening the entire constitution up for debate.
In additional to legal barriers to abolishing the prohibition on re-election, he also faced dire political realities: polls showed that the effort to allow re-election was viewed with great scepticism by the population, much of which viewed re-election as a taboo topic thanks to the legacy of the Stroessner regime. When Cartes’ disapproval ratings reached 70 per cent, his political allies announced they were abandoning the re-election project, likely figuring that even if the constitution could be changed, Cartes would be unable to win a second term.
Taking the gloves off: The Colorado Party’s bold move
Rather than fully abandon the effort to allow re-election as promised, the Colorado Party instead secretly worked on a parallel track to advance constitutional change. On 31 March, 25 senators, most of them Colorado Party members, secretly met in the headquarters of Fernando Lugo’s Frente Guasú party to discuss the project. In a strange twist of fate, Lugo loyalists aligned with their old Colorado Party enemies to support re-election. The alliance was extremely cynical: while the Colorado Party supports re-election in order to see Cartes stay in power, Frente Guasú openly admits it is wagering that Cartes will lose his re-election bid, and the beneficiary of constitutional change will instead be Fernando Lugo. Despite having opposite goals and ideologies, the two parties formed a quorum at their secret meeting, changed the parliamentary rules to prevent the leader of the senate, an opposition member who is against re-election, from being able to block proposed amendments, and through a quick show of hands voted to pass a bill legalising a second presidential term.
More than they can chew: the senate faces a backlash
Almost as soon as the actions of the senate became public, Paraguayans furious with the government and fearing a new type of ‘parliamentary coup’ was occurring took to the streets in protest. As demonstrators broke through police lines and stormed the congressional building, a group of rioters set a portion of the building on fire, causing major damage to it. Police reacted by harshly repressing the protests, injuring some members of the security detail assigned to opposition legislators.
The following day, riot police raided the headquarters of the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (Authentic Radical Liberal Party, PLRA), the largest opposition party, killing one PLRA activist in the process. His death was captured by two security cameras, and the footage of the killing makes clear that the activist was not holding a weapon and was moving away from the police when he was shot in the back of the head by an officer who then stepped on his body.
The killing quickly put Cartes on the defensive, and he fired both the head of the national police and his interior minister, delayed a final vote on re-election, declared he was open to dialogue, and promised that no constitutional change would be made without a referendum.