By Raul Ayala Diarte
With the images from Paraguay’s national elections this past Sunday fresh in our eyes – elections in which businessman Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party rose to a clear victory by a wide margin – any doubts about the electoral and democratic process in Paraguay have been cleared. The country has now repeatedly held transparent electoral processes since the fall of the dictatorship in 1989.
Nearly 70 percent of the voting population participated in this election – one of the highest percentages in history – to elect a president, vice president, senators, deputies, governors and state boards, and parliamentarians for the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). The election was classified as exemplary by international observers from more than 12 organizations, among them the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Union of South American Nations, the Carter Center, and by the local and international press. What is more important is that the candidates accepted the results and there were no incidences to feed the morbid fascination of those that were anticipating problems in the electoral system.
These elections are historic because the world – and particularly the countries of Latin America – were watching everything with critical eyes. They are historic because for the first time we had an election where the Colorado Party (which was hegemonic for 60 years) was running as the opposition and retook power by winning the majority of seats in play (i.e. Senators, Deputies, and Governors) while the Liberal Party, the current governing party, could not even retain the seats it took in 2008.
The traditional parties that dominate Paraguayan politics, the Colorado Party and the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), took more than 80 percent of all votes: Colorado taking 45.8 percent and PLRA 36.94 percent.
The coalition of parties of former President Fernando Lugo obtained 3.32 percent of the votes, amounting to 79,327 voters, which contributes to a better understanding of why Paraguayan society did not defend him during the impeachment trial that cost him the presidency in June 2012. Lugo has lost almost all of his support, as the figures demonstrate, although the coalition got better results in the Senate elections, obtaining five of the 45 seats available.
Like never before in its history, Paraguay became politically isolated by the majority of its South American neighbors. The cause of this isolation, as we know, was the impeachment via political trial of former President Lugo, which the majority of jurists and citizens in our country believe was carried out in the letter and spirit of our Constitution.
Nevertheless, for various leaders in the region motivated by political and ideological interests – as Uruguayan President José Mújica openly recognized – the impeachment was seen as illegal and as a result caused a rupture in Paraguayan democracy.
Because of this “political” interpretation, regional organizations sanctioned and suspended Paraguay’s participation in key international organizations. The “only way” in which Paraguay could be reintegrated into regional institutions is through the clean election conducted on April 21st. It is important for Paraguay to maintain good relations with its neighboring countries since without international cooperation its landlocked location does not give it many other options for development. The electoral system certainly requires profound reforms to grant more equality to the candidates, but this electoral process played out without any major complications.
In Paraguay, the electoral processes have been characterized by a lack of concrete policy proposals. Nevertheless, this election was different due to civil society’s contribution in helping expand the proposals, perhaps not to the level of a well structured governing plan, but enough to qualify as a substantial improvement in content. To understand this better, it is important to highlight that in the 2008 elections where Fernando Lugo won, a government plan did not exist and the campaign relied on just six core themes. Six months after assuming office, Lugo himself created what was called Cerrito I, which was a plan for a better structured government.
To counter this trend and contribute to the electoral process and an informed vote, the Foundation for Development in Democracy (DENDE) and CERNECO – civil society organizations supported by CIPE, organized candidate debates broadcasted by all the open television channels in the country. The purpose was to allow Paraguayan citizens the opportunity to hear and contrast the candidates’ proposals on the issues that matter to them the most. This event was an innovation in the country, and perhaps the region, where all the television stations in the country – private, public, open, and cable – and more than 500 radio stations broadcasted the debates on March 17 and March 24.
According to estimates, over 3 million people from all over the country observed the debate and according to surveys, 71 percent of these people saw and heard the candidates’ proposals for the first time, demonstrating that the debate reached every corner of the country.
The success of this debate can be attributed to the fact that the four leading candidates all participated. This contrasts with what has happened in other countries in which candidates leading in the polls avoid debates, as is the case of Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
What awaits the future government?
The new government will face multiple challenges as well as high expectations and necessary compromises.
With regards to the economy, the priority will be to utilize the country’s favorable natural resource advantages and the ability to produce food to feed 60 million people, an amount 10 times greater than the current population. It is also a priority to establish an industrialization process to generate employment, as well as to control the fiscal deficit.
Other pending topics include:
- The fight against poverty and inequality
- The fight against corruption, nepotism, the patronage system, and the quality of politics
- Making institutions function so that they provide guarantees to citizens
An additional challenge will be to continue to eliminate practices carried down from the previous dictatorial government.
“When the people speak, politicians remain silent.” This phrase summarizes the respect given to popular will as it is reflected in the ballot boxes. ∎
This article originally appeared in Spanish on www.RevistaPerspectiva.com
Raul Ayala Diarte is the executive director of the Foundation for Development in Democracy (DENDE).