Asunci'on, Paraguay — For the first time in almost 33 years of absolute rule, Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner faces unprecedented challenges to his leadership. There is no doubt that General Stroessner, who is also the commander of the armed forces, is still in firm control of this sub-tropical, land-locked nation of 3.6 million. But some members of his own Colorado Party are for the first time calling for the general to step aside, so that a younger, civilian candidate can run in the April 1988 national elections.
Recently, there has been bitter infighting and backbiting among party members, including harassment by the police and military, as the Colorados hold elections for local party offices in preparation for a September convention that will nominate the party's presidential candidate.
Characteristically, Stroessner, who is serving his seventh term under the Colorado banner, has not indicated whether he will run again. In the meantime, the party has split into four factions and become embroiled in a power struggle.
``It's a continuity crisis,'' says Edgar Ynsfr'an, the former interior minister who heads up the so-called Group of 34 faction. ``Do we continue with Stroessner as the candidate or do we need political renewal?'' Such open questioning of Stroessner's grip on power by a party member would have been unheard of a year ago.
Paraguayans who speak out against the system are generally called ``traitors'' or ``communists.'' They face police harassment, arbitrary arrest under a law forbiding ``the foment of hatred,'' forced exile, or such economic sanctions as loss of jobs or government harassment of their businesses.
Yet the government can't brand Mr. Ynsfr'an a subversive because the former interior minister was the architect of the system of terror used to quash all political opposition as Stroessner consolidated his monopoly of power.
The other prominent Colorado challenger is Carlos Romero Pereira, leader of the 'eticos faction, so named for its criticism of rampant institutionalized corruption.
``We need a civilian president,'' Mr. Romero Pereira said in an interview. ``The serious economic, social, political - and above all moral - crisis the country is going through demands such a change.''
The other two factions are loyal to Stroessner, but have different views of what should happen to the party after he is gone. The militantes want the status quo to continue. The rival tradicionalistas want the 100-year-old party to return to what it was before Stroessner remodeled it to fit his own image.
Stroessner has kept a tight rein on the 1 million-member party, using it to distribute government resources and exercise patronage. All public employees, ranging from teachers to judicial employees and armed forces members, and often their family members, must be Colorado members.
Opposition parties have long been muted by fear and a system that Paraguayans refer to as mybarete. The word means ``the strongest rule'' in the Guarani Indian language, which is still spoken by almost everyone in the country. The continuous state of siege in effect since 1959, only lifted during elections, has hamstrung the parties. Tight controls restrict access to the media and limit the parties' ability to openly recruit partisans or hold public meetings. A law prohibits opposition parties from forming a coalition slate.
These parties consistently refuse to participate in elections because ``fraud is institutionalized,'' says Fernando Vera, leader of a small social-democratic party. ``Going to election means giving legitimacy to an illegitimate regime.''
An informal coalition of four center-right and center-left parties called the Acuerdo Nacional (National Accord) was formed in 1979 to work for a transitional government to replace Stroessner rule.
Clyde Taylor, US ambassador to Paraguay since November 1985, has become a political issue here because he has met with opposition politicians and dissident Colorado members and has openly criticized the regime for censuring the media. Recently, a barbecue organized in his honor by Women for Democracy, a group from all political parties, was prevented from taking place when police riot squads used tear gas to break up the arriving crowd.
Most Paraguayans appear pessimistic about the possibilities for change in the near future. Despite escalating pressures from within the Colorado Party and increasing discontent among the traditionally supportive business community because of the country's deteriorating economy, Stroessner stands firm by relying on the military for support. To ensure loyalty, he has allowed his generals to control the country's lucrative contraband trade in such goods as cars, whiskey, and electronic appliances.
The role of the military in national politics was underlined in November when Gen. Gustavo Prieto Bustos, head of the national war college, declared that Stroessner would continue as President ``until the end of his days.''
Stroessner's staying power is also rooted in the country's tragic past. He is credited with ending a long history of war and political chaos - including chronic civil strife and a succession of coups in the nine years before he took over - and helping usher the country into the modern age. And, after so many years of one-man rule, Paraguayans are simply not used to having an alternative.
``The vote here means nothing,'' says Eugene Connolly, an American priest who has worked for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn in the Paraguayan town of Coronel Oviedo for the past 17 years.
``The system is very paternalistic and is all favoritism.''