Five years after Paraguay's conservative political and economic elite grabbed power back by ousting the first left-wing government in the country's modern history, the left appears poised for a comeback.
Despite polls projecting what could be a historical reckoning for the left in next year's presidential election, a bizarre recent alliance between the conservative ruling party and the ousted president’s progressive coalition raises questions about the electoral future of the South American country and the political compromises that may be justified in the name of regaining power.
As the first progressive head of state after over 60 years of conservative rule, former President Ferdinand Lugo marked a break with the status quo when he was elected in 2008 with promises to develop long-neglected agrarian reform and tackle systemic corruption, two challenges that remain central political issues in the country.
However, Paraguay’s place in South America’s socialist Pink Tide was cut short with Lugo’s ouster, as the right-wing manipulated a 2012 massacre of 17 people in Curuguaty, using it as a pretext for his removal through a vote in Congress.
Critics argue that courts never thoroughly investigated the Curuguaty case, handing down sentences last year to 11 campesinos totaling 120 years, but not holding to account for the fatal violence any of the 300 riot police officers who used military-like force against the landless community. While justice remains frustrated, it’s clear that the right-wing opposition quickly exploited the event to wage an expedited and ill-footed impeachment process against Lugo, holding him responsible for the tragedy.
Lugo’s ouster, widely condemned as a parliamentary coup across the region, marked one the most significant moves in a new era of right-wing maneuvering to delegitimize, destabilize, and remove left-wing governments that have swept power across South America in the wake of the election of late President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela over 15 years ago.
Such right-wing campaigns, epitomized in last year’s parliamentary coup against Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, have done away with the strong-arm coups of the past in favor of strategies masked in the rhetoric of institutionality and democracy.
As both Paraguay and Brazil have demonstrated, however, the true motives behind such questionable maneuvers is a right-wing power grab to reinstate the reign of the political and economic elite after moves to redistribute wealth and tackle systemic inequality with new social programs.
Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes, from the right-wing Colorado Party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, has championed neoliberal policies and has seen high disapproval ratings since coming into office in 2013 in the wake of Lugo’s 2012 ouster.
Now, after five years of neoliberalism, Lugo’s Guasu Front could be poised for a comeback. The underlying issues of land conflicts that gave rise to the Curuguaty massacre remain unaddressed, and Cartes' administration has continued to deepen damaging neoliberal economic policies and an agroindustrial model for the countryside on the back of decades of answered calls for comprehensive land reform to confront deep historical inequalities.
Over the past couple of years, campesinos have repeatedly marched on Asuncion by the thousands to demand Cartes' resignation. And agricultural issues, rural rights and demands for land reform are far from fringe topics in the country with one of the most unequal distributions of land in the region and where almost half the population lives in rural areas.
And that discontent is registering in the polls. According to a poll published in March, Lugo was the favorite for the 2018 election with 52.6 percent of voters' support, followed by Cartes in a distant second at 11.9 percent.
Consistent with a shortcoming of much of Latin America's electoral left, Paraguay's Guasu Front has failed to cultivate new leadership, banking on Lugo's leadership for the 2018 election despite the fact that the country’s laws limit presidents to a single five-year term in office. Lugo has said he plans to run in 2018 whether or not the rules around presidential term limits change.
In the name of getting Lugo on the ballot, the Guasu Front formed an odd alliance earlier this year with Cartes’ Colorado Party to push for a constitutional reform to allow for presidential re-election. The change would allow both Cartes and Lugo to run in 2018. That is, the victim of a modern-day coup and one of the chief behind-the-scenes architect of that coup joined forces in a bid to be able to run against each for the country’s top office.
According to a February poll, 77 percent of Paraguayans are against presidential re-election on the grounds that it goes against the country’s Constitution. The question of presidential re-election is a contentious one in Paraguay, where — like in many Latin American countries — a dark history of repressive dictatorships continues to cast a shadow on present-day politics. In Paraguay, dictator Alberto Stroessner ruled with an iron fist for 35 years.
The right-left alliance backing the controversial proposed constitutional change — rammed through for a vote in the Senate in an unusual process rife with irregularities — sparked criticism within the ranks of the Colorado Party and Guasu Front. It was strongly rejected by the Liberal Party, the country’s main opposition, which historically had traded power with the Colorado Party prior to Stroessner’s dictatorship that consolidated conservative role for decades to follow. Protests against the move, led by the Liberal Party, turned violent, leaving one person dead and deeping flared political tensions.
Polls have also looked at a scenario without former presidents on the ballot. According to the same March poll that projected a win for Lugo, if Lugo and Cartes were out of the picture, Asuncion Mayor Mario Ferreiro — who unsuccessfully ran for president against Cartes with the center-left coalition Forward Country in 2013 — would be the favorite with 47.3 percent.
Ferreiro launched his political career with the Lugo’s Guasu Front, but later left the coalition over political differences. Lugo has said he has not ruled out a potential alliance with Ferreiro for the 2018 election. But the Asuncion mayor came out against the presidential re-election proposal, which could be cause for friciton between the two leaders' political movements.
At the height of the turbulance caused by the re-election proposal, Cartes said that "in no event" will he seek re-election. But the announcement has not appeared to do away with the right-left alliance. Cartes' Colorado Party recently backed Lugo in Congress, supporting a vote to elect him president of the Senate.
Asuncion swung left with Ferreiro's mayoral election in 2015, putting an end to 15 years of conservative governments. The country could be headed for the same fate in 2018 by electing a progressive president. But five years after a parliamentary coup that cut the left's mandate short, the new alliance between the victim and the benefactor of the 2012 ouster will still raise questions about the Guasu Front's agenda heading into the 2018 polls.