ASUNCIÓN – Paraguayan democracy has taken a giant step backward since its Congress impeached President Fernando Lugo in June, plunging the country into political turmoil and diplomatic isolation. Coming only nine months before the next scheduled presidential election, this crisis erupted from political party elites’ short-sighted and brutish competition for public resources, not to mention their disdain for democracy.
Although the impeachment played out according to the constitution, there was little semblance of due process, and international observers have described the move as a “parliamentary coup.” The proceedings lasted a total of 30 hours from the time the lower house officially announced its charges to the inauguration of Lugo’s successor, former Vice President Federico Franco. Lugo’s defense occupied less than two hours of a five-hour trial in the Senate.
Lugo’s downfall was precipitated by the collapse of his legislative majority in the political fallout over a land conflict in the eastern district of Curuguaty. On June 15, an attempt to evict farmers from a disputed piece of land turned violent, resulting in the death of 11 peasants and six policemen.
It remains unclear who is to blame for the violence, but, after his interior minister came under fire, Lugo named a replacement from the opposition Colorado Party. In response, Lugo’s largest bloc of legislative support, the Liberal Party, turned against the government and joined the opposition’s impeachment proceedings.
So far, no member country of the Organization of American States has recognized the new government, several countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Paraguay, and the Mercosur trading bloc has suspended Paraguay from trade negotiations. Latin American leaders from both the left and the right have sharply condemned Lugo’s impeachment, and further isolation could destabilize the country.
Two factors – in addition to Lugo’s strategic missteps and the shifting alliances within the government coalition – explain why Paraguay’s leaders have driven their country off this cliff. First, Paraguay’s deeply clientelistic political system has been unable to accommodate new entrants. Its two major political forces, the Colorados and the Liberals, operate as rival political machines, mobilizing electoral support by distributing public employment, contracts, and cash.
Competition between the two parties is simply a contest for access to public resources, devoid of ideological debate about the best use of those resources, or about the state’s role in the economy and society. The Colorados dominated this winner-take-all game during six decades of one-party rule, but lost their political monopoly in 2008, when the Liberals, in exchange for the vice-presidential nomination, backed a leftist coalition supporting Lugo.
The Colorado Party’s defeat reintroduced political competition and brought about Paraguay’s first-ever democratic change of government. But, in addition to bringing the Liberals to power, democratization granted the left its first foothold within the Paraguayan state and its first opportunity to build its own political machine – a deeply threatening prospect for both traditional parties.
Second, Paraguay’s political elite, regardless of party affiliation, are committed to preserving the country’s unequal land distribution and frustrating the development of politically autonomous peasant organizations. It is no coincidence that a land conflict provided the fodder for the trumped-up impeachment charges against Lugo.
Lugo’s government pursued moderate economic and social policies, but did not propose any meaningful land reform. Nonetheless, Liberals and Colorados in Congress used the violence in Curuguaty to justify Lugo’s impeachment, arguing that he had failed to maintain social order and portraying him as a dangerous radical intent on fomenting a rural insurgency.
Thus, two concerns have driven the actions of the Liberal and Colorado elite since Lugo’s inauguration, ultimately leading them to collaborate in the impeachment plot. First, each party wishes to reassert monopolistic control over the state rather than accept that democratic competition and alternation of power now constitute permanent elements of Paraguay’s political regime. Second, they have sought to prevent the left from using its new access to public resources to build an electoral base that would appeal to groups that fall outside traditional clientelist networks.
Among the largest of these politically excluded groups are landless peasants, who demand land reform and rural development policies. But urban youth and educated professionals, too, are larger in number and more politically active than ever before – a change reflected in the sudden rise and surprising success of “occupy” protest movements demanding an end to patronage politics. If the left could build an electoral base by directing public resources to these groups, competition would become a permanent feature of Paraguayan politics, and public-sector modernization and land reform would be on the table, cutting to the heart of elite political power.
Rather than accept a more pluralistic political regime, both the Colorados and Liberals flagrantly disregarded their responsibilities as democratically elected representatives, and are gambling with Paraguay’s economic and political stability at the expense of its citizens. The Liberals’ behavior seems especially myopic: in ousting Lugo, they ruptured the only political coalition capable of defeating the Colorados.
The Liberals did so in order to claim control of the state and its budget for the nine months that remain before the next presidential election. During this time, the Liberals will set their patronage machine in motion and attempt to expand their voter base enough to win an outright majority. Instead, they may simply deliver the Paraguayan state into the hands of Colorado leaders who are intent on turning back the clock on democratization, excluding Liberals, and marginalizing all groups demanding more effective and inclusive use of public resources.