The New Game in Town: Democracy and Putsch in Paraguay

In our first guest post, José Szwako, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM/INCT)  and a researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (NDAC/Cebrap), examines the implications for democracy of recent events in Paraguay. José’s research  focuses on feminist organizations and social movements in post-dictatorship Paraguay.

Translated by Natalia S. Bueno

It took the Paraguayan legislature just about 31 hours to remove President Lugo from office. On June 21st, the lower house voted 76 to 1 to impeach him due to “poor performance of his duties”. On June 22nd, Lugo was given two hours to present his arguments against the impeachment to the Senate. Immediately after, he was voted out of power by 39 out of 45 senators, with two abstentions. The vice-president, Frederico Franco, took office soon after the vote.

Paraguay is no stranger to this type of breakdown in democracy. General Lino Oviedo’s 1996 military mutiny and the assassination of Paraguay’s former vice-president, Luis María Argaña, in 1999, which led to a tragic cycle of protests, were the last two examples of the deadly effects of intra-elite competition.

One of the main legacies of the violent protests following Argaña’s assassination was that the main political actors appeared to have accepted the legitimacy of the rules of the democratic game. For a short period, none dared to question that democracy was the only game in town.

But there is now a new game in town; the political trial that deposed President Lugo on June 22nd reflects a changing scenario in Paraguay. Traditional political forces, the liberalismo and coloradismo (supporters of the Liberal and Colorado parties respectively) appear to respect the rules of the democratic game when, in fact, their actions undermine these very rules.

Numerous factors have led to the situation we see today. Lugo’s administration and the legislative chambers had sat on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. President Lugo had faced fierce opposition to most (if not all) of the bills he tried to pass while in office. This distance between the executive and legislature was due both to Lugo’s (limited) progressive policies as well as perceptions of his (alleged) arrogance towards the legislative. This abyss between the powers was apparent during the political trial as a crushing majority democratically – or rather, legally – voted Lugo out of power.

The parliamentary majority had, in turn, been elected by a controversial electoral system designed during the transition to democracy in the 1990s. Contrary to the Stronista past, which ruled Paraguay for 35 years, these changes ensured that power was no longer concentrated in the executive. Closed party-lists led to an oligarchical mode of electoral competition, controlled by the two traditional parties. These parties have a strict hierarchical structure, with very little participation of their constituents. Little respect is paid to their own internal electoral-organizational rules, as is seen in their manipulation of the electoral system; the parties hide names of those politicians with shaky democratic credentials in the middle of the so-called listas sábanas (blanket lists) to increase the chances of their election. Center-left political parties and social movements have been vocal about the distortions created by the listas sábanas and these actors have been demanding changes to the electoral design for the upcoming elections in 2013. It is no coincidence that those who would be affected by those changes removed Lugo from power by a presidential putsch.

Equally relevant to the electoral design are the tensions surrounding the presidency. Last Friday’s impeachment was the 24th attempt to depose Lugo. One of the previous impeachment attempts argued that Lugo should be deposed because he was a nymphomaniac. In comparison to the way the legislative handled Lugo’s impeachment on the 22nd, this nymphomania accusation appears too tragic to be laughable. The official accusation document has not yet been made public on the websites of the Senate or Lower Chamber, and, if the impeachment document that is circulating the web is authentic (hat tip to Greg Weeks), the vagueness of the accusations and the lack of evidence – as well as the absence of a requirement to present due evidence to prosecute – are truly astonishing.

The arguments used for this coup within and by the rules of the game have centered around land disputes. Lugo was accused of failing to handle these conflicts effectively and of having connections to armed civilian groups involved in land conflicts. The trigger for this last and apparently successful impeachment was the Curuguaty event, which occurred on June 15th and caused the death of 17 people, including police officers and rural workers.

These are the factors that are shaping this sad episode in the young Paraguayan democracy: the oligarchical nature of electoral design, unequal land distribution, incipient, but still elite-threatening, social policies. These have together led to the ad absurdum interpretation and use of democratic rules.

There are a few silver linings, however. Firstly, the events demonstrate the absolute submission of the military to civilian rule – an undeniable accomplishment for such a fragile democracy. Secondly, despite the contentious nature of this event, there has been a relatively low level of state repression. Pro-Lugo groups and voices have not yet been suffocated. In fact, these groups are forming a front called “Frente por la Defensa de la Democracia” and are using the media and other venues to express their opposition to the “presidentrucho” (the less-than-flattering title used to mock new president Franco).

International actors have also played an important role defending the rules of the democratic game. Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay temporally suspended Paraguay from the Mercosur, although they have not yet imposed economic sanctions on the country. It is unclear if the new “triple alianza” will have any impact on Paraguayan politics. In 1996, for instance, international actors had only limited effects on national decisions. If anything, the reaction from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay may challenge the new government’s legitimacy, thereby stirring nationalistic and anti-democratic  feelings among the populace.

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