Paraguay is headed into its first municipal election on Sunday since right-wing President Horacio Cartes came to power in 2013. With widespread popular discontent rising and diverse social sectors waging protests against controversial government policies, the South American country could be headed for a political shakeup this election.
About 3.9 million Paraguayans, including 300,000 new voters, are eligible to elect 250 mayors and 2,640 councilors to municipal office on Nov. 15 in 17 departments, plus the federal district, across the country.
The elections come as disapproval for President Cartes is high, and social movements and unions are increasingly taking to the streets to demand a change in neoliberal policies and even the resignation of the president. Issues sparking the protests and likely to play a determining role in the elections include the economy, agriculture, and education, among others.
And according to social movements, these issues are many.
“The absence of union freedom and persecution of workers, rising cost of living for the people, total abandonment and persecution of campesino communities, a high level of corruption and mediocrity in secondary and university education institutions, absence of free and quality public health policies, worrying level of insecurity produced by the mafia and narco-politics, unemployment, the country’s high debt, political crumbs for the people, militarization and anxiety in the north, point to one conclusion: the project led by Cartes in the service of transnational imperialist capital is primarily responsible for this great crisis rocking the Paraguayan people,” wrote the coalition of organizations known as the People’s Democratic Congress in a statement on Nov. 12.
Reflecting the the people’s dissatisfaction with the neoliberal status quo, the opposition in the capital city Asuncion, a key district, is polling more than 10 points ahead of the incumbent mayor ahead of Sunday’s election.
According to a recent poll reported in Paraguay’s Ultima Hora, opposition candidate Mario Ferreiro of the Revolutionary Febrerista Party has a 16-point lead over the incumbent candidate Arnaldo Samaniego of the ruling Colorado Party.
Mayoral candidate Mario Ferreiro poses with youth voters. I Photo: Twitter/Mario Ferreiro
With Ferreiro slated for a win, Asuncion could see a political change. The shift could also signal popular will for broader change when the presidential race comes around again in 2018.
Paraguay’s Political Landscape
Asuncion’s leading candidate Mario Ferreiro unsuccessfully ran for president against Cartes in 2013 with the center-left coalition Forward Country.
Ferreiro’s social-democratic Revolutionary Febrerista Party is now part of the newly formed Together We Can alliance, which unites various left and center-left parties. The coalition also includes the main traditional opposition to the ruling Colorado Party, the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, as well as the left and center-left Guasu Front coalition headed by former President Fernando Lugo.
Lugo, elected in 2008 with the Patriotic Alliance for Change, was removed from office in 2012 in what countries in the region and other critics condemned as a “parliamentary coup.”
A Catholic bishop before launching into politics, Lugo was known as the “bishop of the poor.” In his presidential campaign, he gained popularity by aligning with campesino movements and promising to develop long-neglected agrarian reform and tackle systemic corruption. The two issues remain central challenges confronting Paraguay.
During his presidency, Lugo introduced policies to combat poverty, including creating new free treatment hospitals and investing in housing programs for low-income people.
The new social programs came as a major change in Paraguayan politics after Lugo’s election ended over 60 years of conservative rule under the Colorado Party, the party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner and current President Cartes.
Former dictator Alfredo Stroessner I Photo: EFE
Paraguay lived more than three decades under Stroessner’s U.S.-backed dictatorship, during which Paraguay saw hundreds disappeared through the U.S.-backed Operation Condor designed to quash opposition to dictatorships throughout Latin America.
Although the 35-year military rule officially came to an end in 1989, longstanding structural problems have left Paraguay struggling to ensure stability and democracy. Lugo’s parliamentary ousting was one such example of Paraguay’s enduring political challenges.
What’s more, a recent report from the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean titled, “Youth: Realities and challenges for development with equality,” found that the “preference for democracy” among Paraguayan youth is the lowest in the region, indicating troubling legacies from the dictatorship era.
But the rise in Ferreiro’s popularity reflects growing popular discontent with the Colorado Party and its neoliberal policies. In recent weeks, students, teachers, medical staff, and transport workers have launched strikes to protest the lack of government support for public institutions. Campesinos, Indigenous people, and educators have also marched on Asuncion to demand President Cartes resign and to protest policies that contribute to poverty and weak institutions.
Amid the wave of protests, diverse social sectors and unions have declared their participation in a general strike planned for Dec. 18, one month after the municipal elections. The action, the second general strike in President Cartes’ two years in office, will demand freedom of association and expression, solutions to various disputes, and social justice policies that benefit the people, not just corporations.
Plagued by Poverty and Inequality
Paraguay is a small, landlocked South American country with a population of just over 7 million people. Although the United Nations has applauded Paraguay for making “impressive achievements” in working toward addressing poverty, more than one-third of the population still lives in poverty.
The country also has one of most unequal distributions of land in the region, which is significant given that almost half the population lives in rural areas and that more than a quarter of Paraguayans work in the agricultural sector, a huge economic driver. Even more people live off subsistence farming.
But vast swaths of the country are increasingly covered in soy monocultures, mostly Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety, threatening small scale agriculture and local food security by fuelling displacement of rural populations and mostly producing for export. Agrarian reform to address the country’s extremely unequal land distribution has long been an unfulfilled demand of campesinos.
Campesino protesters carry signs saying that they are sick and tired of injustice, violence, and impunity of the current government. I Photo: FNC
Along with poverty and economic struggles, longstanding challenges in Paraguay also include systematic corruption throughout the military and other state institutions and failure of the government to effectively deal with the armed guerrilla movement known as the EPP who are fighting large landowners in northern Paraguay.
Poor, Indigenous, and rural people, as well as workers, are the main sectors driving protests against the current government’s policies and demanding action to address inequality.
In one positive step to tackle inequality, this municipal election will mark the first time Paraguayans are able to vote in the Indigenous Guarani language. The vast majority of Paraguayans, about 95 percent, speak Guarani, which is an official language along with Spanish.
Guarani-language voting could hold the potential to increase voter participation among the half of the population that solely communicates in the Indigenous language.