A leftist government, a coup orchestrated by the right, and somehow, after all of this: an election. This may sound like a political thriller set to hit the box office, but this is the political reality of Paraguay. Elections are imminent, set to take place on April 22nd. The stakes are big: Democracy, Freedom, and land distribution.
Here is some context that might be useful.
In 2012, the election of Fernando Lugo ended a 61-year period that the Colorado Party held the highest offices of Paraguay. Lugo, a leftist, won the election with the support of the Campesinos(landless farmers, who make up about 60% of the population). Upon taking office, it was assumed Lugo would start enacting policies that would address the fact that 2% of the population owned 80% of Paraguay’s land.
Later that year Big Agriculture was worried when 60 Campesinos occupied land. The protesters were forcibly removed. 11 Campesinos and 6 police officers were killed in the process. The Right said President Lugo had blood on his hand.
The Senate held a short trial, and removed Fernando Lugo from office. The more centrist vice president and a fierce critic of Lugo, Fernando Franco, was sworn in. Elections were held again 2013. Horacio Cartes from the Colorado Party(Yes, the party that was in power for 61 years before Lugo) won and assumed office.
After the parliamentary coup, pressure from Paraguay’s neighbors and even the catholic church was cast onto Paraguay’s new leaders. Knowing this Cartes tried to legitimize his presidency through a secret parliamentary vote that amended the constitution to allow him to run.
In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline key indications of authoritarian behavior. These behaviors can be observed in Paraguay today. Cartes’ casual relationship with the constitution highlights a weak commitment to the democratic rules. Cartes’ refusal to allow Lugo to run for office shows his denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. Moreover, the killing of Rodrigo Quintana Quintana amongst the violence that erupted after the secret parliamentary vote that allowed Cartes to run for president demonstrates the government’s toleration of violence.
What is the reasoning behind Cartes seeking office through the ballot box? Lugo was removed in a process that has been called a parliamentary coup. Why not a classical military coup? Why did the Right go through parliamentary procedures to remove Lugo from office legally? Why is the Senator Masi calling for a trial instead of a liberal coup?
The answer to all of these questions might just be one in the same.
The world is much more connected these days. Globalization has made the local global. It turns out being an outright authoritarian is no longer in vogue. In fact, it comes with real consequences(see: sanctions in North Korea and even Russia).
Cartes may be holding office undemocratically, but the illusion of democracy is important to make him palatable to Paraguay’s neighbors and the rest of the world. This upcoming election may even be rigged, but the ritual of it gives ethos and legitimacy to the government.
Authoritarianism has adapted to the new global environment. This mutation does not change it’s nature however.
Freedom house initially welcomed Lugo’s election as a step forward towards democracy. A view highlighted by their ratings of Paraguay. The latest ratings however state that Paraguay has retreated back to authoritarian rule.
This rating however says nothing of the future.
Lugo’s election seemed to bring to life the promise of Democracy. His election highlighted a new possibility in the public’s imagination. Even if was stolen through a coup, the idea remains.
Cartes might steal this election and dress up his authoritarianism by creating a State that is authoritarian in action but with a democratic façade.
The clientelism of the Colorado party can only curtail democracy for so long. The vast inequitable distribution of land has led to a class of people who make up the majority who are dissatisfied with the status quo.
The Paraguayan opposition is organizing and public discourse is happening. Protests are becoming more common. Hope exists.
Aprill 22nd is around the corner and the people of Paraguay might stand up to the Colorado party as they did in 2012. Time will tell. I stand in solidarity with my sisters and brothers who are landless but who have the fate of Paraguay in their hands.
People celebrate rejection of the amendment in front of the Congress after members discuss during a session at the Lower House amendment to allow presidential second terms of Congress in Asuncion, Paraguay April 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno
Photo by Reuters/Jorge Adorno