The Western media has been hyper-focused on the American presidential election, and rightfully so. American media outlets have much domestic material to discuss as polarization increases throughout the United States. Many media outlets include stories about flagrant affronts to democracy, demonstrating America’s interest in ensuring democracy worldwide as the “leader of the free world”. However, the media occasionally fails to recognize the impact of legal proceedings that yield the same results as illegal actions performed by the world’s infamous democratic offenders. Governments that operate under the international radar are abusing the present political environment to continually challenge democratic norms. One such “democratic” country – and the topic of this discussion – is Paraguay. The leading political party in Paraguay, the Colorado Party (Partido Colorado), has abused Paraguay’s minimal international attention to legally undermine democracy, exemplifying the power of stealth authoritarianism.
Due to periods of severe political unrest, Paraguay does not boast the same democratic standing that the United States possesses. After the civil war of 1947 came El Stronato, a 35-year military dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner. The dictatorship itself was executed by the Colorado Party, the party that has only once lost an election since 1954 and continues to dominate the current political landscape. The reason for the persistent success of the Colorado Party is because of its ability to maintain democratic legitimacy and effective governance, two key factors to democracy according to political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset. Leading political scientists and authors of How Democracies Die, Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt assert that “playing by the rules” ensures democratic legitimacy regardless of the actions themselves. In the case of Paraguay, the Colorado party maintains a level of legitimacy because they are employing the law to legally undermine democracy, furthering the legitimacy of their actions. One of the strongest examples of this phenomena occurred during 2012. In 2008, the Colorado Party lost its first election in 62 years to President Fernando Lugo. Between 2008 and 2012 the Colorado party still maintained power in the legislature; in 2012, this power was exercised to initiate the “express impeachment” of President Fernando Lugo and ultimately place a member of the Colorado Party as president.
Despite the Colorado Party’s firm grip and “express impeachment”, the government still sustains the defining characteristics of a procedural democracy as prescribed by leading political scientists Samuel Huntington and Robert Dahl. According to Huntington and Dahl, a procedural democracy consists of a state whereby protected civil liberties facilitate free, fair, and competitive elections; “universal adult suffrage; and the absence of unelected tutelary institutions (e.g. the military) that limit the authorities of elected leaders.” Freedom House, the international research institution responsible for measuring democracy, aligns with the definition of Paraguay as a procedural democracy and asserts that“Paraguay’s democracy is dominated by the conservative Colorado Party. Corruption is decreasing but remains widespread, while organized crime and environmental destruction damage the rights of rural and indigenous populations. Poverty and gender-based discrimination also limit the rights of women and children in particular.” The key to stealth authoritarianism, however, is that it is difficult to observe and quantify. Author of “Stealth Authoritarianism” Ozan A. Varol cites that stealth authoritarianism “refers to government practices…which render that regime less democratic than it was before.” Over the course of this September, Paraguay’s position as a “partly-free” democracy has been challenged as undemocratic practices and authoritarian tendencies have become more apparent. Two of these affronts to democracy include the murder of two girls, aged 11 and 12 who were murdered by national security forces and the elimination and suspension of certain judicial courts.
The current regime relies upon a powerful police force and a flimsy judiciary to ensure the political domination of the Colorado Party. However, the aforementioned tragic murder of two young girls has drawn attention to Paraguay’s abuse of military funds. Currently, the task force assigned to strip the Paraguayan People’s Party (Ejército de Pueblo Paraguayo – EPP) of their power boasts 1,500 soldiers and an annual budget of $14 million. The forces themselves are dangerously ineffective yet continue to require significant funding. Paraguay’s powerful armed services have been strengthened over the course of the last few years with the addition of the Grupo Lince in Asunción, a police force instituted in 2018 after the election of the right-wing president Mario Abdo Benítez. Created to preserve public order, the addition of Grupo Lince has attracted criticism from the media – including ABC Noticias and Ultima Hora – condemning the police for illegal detention of suspected criminals and attacking compliant adolescents with rubber bullets and pepper spray, among other instances. The aforementioned media outlets are not aligned with the country’s conservative politics, unlike La Nación, the right-wing media outlet that has failed to condemn the disproportional and ineffective use of police and military in the country.
The judiciary is critical to maintaining democracy, yet this month the Paraguayan judiciary voted to abolish the Judicial Administration Council (Consejo de Administración Judicial). While much of this article focuses on stealth authoritarianism, Ozan A. Varol defines the shutting down of courts as blatant affront to democracy. Despite the severity of this offense, few media outlets have reported it, demonstrating the dulled reaction resulting from increasing authoritarian actions in Paraguay. To find this information, it was required to investigate several local media outlets in Asunción, of which many were unaware of this occurrence, perhaps demonstrating the widespread acceptance of judicial corruption in Paraguay.
The real danger of the events that have been occurring in Paraguay is that they have not garnered international attention, further demonstrating the efficacy of stealth authoritarianism. Ozan A. Varol writes in “Stealth Authoritarianism” that “stealth authoritarianism can ultimately make authoritarian governance more durable by concealing anti-democratic practices under the mask of law.” It is imperative that international media outlets understand stealth authoritarianism rather than only focusing on flagrant offenses to democratic norms in order to hold governments accountable for restricting the freedom of people worldwide. Hopefully the Colorado Party will then be held accountable and that Paraguayans will no longer feel that they are reliving El Stronato.
Very interesting blog post!
Voting to abolish the Judicial Administration Council, like you said, is blatant suppression of democracy. The fact that this was voted on legally was shocking. I had no idea this was going on in Paraguay
I do have a question about the murder of the two girls. Were you able to find out the incentive of these murders done by the national security forces? I am wondering if it was done in personal interest.
Your post provides some captivating insight into the structure of Paraguay’s political structure. The argument that Paraguay is currently experiencing the adverse implications of stealth authoritarianism is compelling substantively but raises a host of theoretical questions. Can an effectively one-party system legitimately be labeled a democracy? The mere existence of opposition parties cannot possibly be the sole determinant of regime classification; this is especially true when minority party leaders face automatic impeachment should they assume executive power, as you mention in your post. Furthermore, stealth authoritarianism is predicated on obscurity. You make an important insight regarding Paraguay’s lack of exposure in Western media; however, the lack of coverage does not mean that dedicated observers would not readily conclude that the Colorado Party has operated in a blatantly undemocratic manor since the 1950s. Based on your explanation, there does not appear to be anything covert about the regime’s democratic subterfuge. Another question that emerged after reading your post: Is Paraguay experiencing democratic backsliding or democratic consolidation? The answer to that is contingent on whether you believe Paraguay has ever been a democratic state, a verdict I certainly can’t render. The subjectivity of the classification raises concerns over how the international community might deal with states boasting similar regimes; it would be interesting to see if policies towards effectively one-party “democracies” are consistent across regions or continents. The act of exposing Paraguay’s political system to a wider audience, which you yourself have done with this post, could itself impact the regime’s perception abroad. Overall, I thought this was an incredibly informative post and I’m very much looking forward to reading the next one!
When looking at the most recent election there were issues in regards to fraud, vote-buying, and media blackouts for opposing political parties. I agree that democracy is on a decline in Paraguay as we have witnessed the Superior Electoral Court of Justice (TSJE) also be swayed by the head of state on multiple occasions. It’s hard to imagine that the situation would improve seeing that rule of law is not consistent in this government and that the TSJE has struggled to implement mechanisms to oversee finance campaigning and vote recounts. Most importantly, many local districts consistently and purposely ignore the ruling of the TSJE. The current administration has also failed to implement constitutional reform to address these issues.
It’s rather unfortunate to see that after the July 2019 scandal over the Itaipu Dam, the government became aware that the former president, Horacio Cartes, still has influence over the government and almost acquired a seat in the senate. There is a lack of representation for women, Afro-Paraguayans as well as indigenous communities. With democratic backsliding occurring as we speak I have two questions. First, how do you think Paraguayan citizens can combat Mario Abdo Benitez and his administration in centralizing power? And second, what can outside observers do to combat authoritarianism?
Personally, I would place more media attention and utilize the OAS to oversee local, and federal elections. I would encourage increased protest and voter turnout to ensure the government is truly representative.
I found this blog post to be really interesting as to how a “party-free” country can shrink its way to not being free through what seems to be the transition into a one-party state. I am interested in knowing how the Colorado Party conducted itself before 2008 and how it was able to lose an election in 2008: was democratic erosion in the country highlighted to the public and not electing the Colorado Party candidate was a push back by the people? I think that the voting to abolish the Judicial Administration Council seems to be the clearest instance of democratic erosion in Paraguay, and the lack of media sources reporting on this is quite interesting. I am really interested in seeing how elections are carried out in Paraguay, as well as investigating if there is voter fraud or other mechanisms at work to ensure the success of the Colorado Party.
While your description of the Colorado Party and its antidemocratic tactics is very interesting, I wonder how they have managed to stay in power for so long. Do voters, in repeated free and fair elections, keep choosing them to office again and again? If so, then it is more problematic to attempt to consider them full-on autocrats; yet if they control the media landscape, as you mentioned with the Judicial Administration Council case, then the situation becomes less ambiguous. As regards stealth authoritarianism, I am interested as to whether Paraguayans themselves are convinced they are living another El Stronato—do they, like the rest of the world, not notice the authoritarianism? The point of stealth authoritarianism is to fool everyone that all is well and good, not only international organizations or countries as you argue.