ASUNCI'ON, PARAGUAY — FEW people here would go so far as to describe this week's elections as a sign of imminent democracy and political freedom. But equally few are willing to completely discount the flawed vote, won handily by the acting President, Gen. Andr'es Rodr'iguez.
Instead, opposition politicians, diplomats, and foreign observers are waiting to see if the process of political liberalization that has swept Paraguay since General Rodr'iguez overthrew dictator Alfredo Stroessner will continue.
``If the elections are to represent a serious move toward democracy, then further reforms must inevitably and shortly follow,'' said a statement by a group of election observers.
Rodr'iguez ran for the ruling Colorado Party in the May 1 elections, garnering 74 percent of the vote, according to official figures.
The leading opposition candidate, Domingo Laino of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, trailed far behind with 18 percent. And in parliamentary elections, official results showed the Colorado Party outpolling the seven opposition parties by 2 to 1.
But the elections were plagued by incidents of fraud all over the country, foreign observers say.
``The results are ludicrous,'' Dr. Laino complained. ``No one wins with 74 percent in a real democracy. There were irregularities everywhere.''
But the opposition decided to accept the results and take the one-third of the parliamentary seats that it won so as not to be relegated to its previous insignificance under General Stroessner, says Christian Democratic Party leader Jorge Cristaldo.
``We have to stay in the process,'' Mr. Cristaldo says. ``We have worked too hard to throw away what we won in the election.''
The main gain for the opposition since Stroessner's Feb. 3 ouster is the fact that seven political parties were allowed to contest the elections. Among other changes: Banned newspapers are printing again; a previously outlawed radio station is broadcasting freely; trade unions and peasant farmers are organizing as never before; and demonstrators no longer afraid of being clubbed into submission are again taking to the streets.
But doubts persist among government critics about how deep or long-lasting the reforms will prove. Laino suspects they may be no more than a way of ``continuing the Stroessnerist system with a few new faces and slightly softer methods.''
And old habits die hard: Opposition party headquarters this week were flooded with reports of serious irregularities reminiscent of the fraudulent elections that Stroessner repeatedly ``won'' over 35 years.
At countless polling stations the indelible ink into which voters dipped their fingers to prevent multiple voting had been adulterated, and came off in a few minutes. At others, international observers saw policemen or Colorado officials sitting inside polling booths telling voters which ballot paper to choose.
These problems for the opposition were secondary to those posed by the electoral law itself, written to ensure Stroessner and his Colorado Party an untroubled string of election victories. The formation of coalitions was not permitted. The Colorado Party controlled two-thirds of the seats on all electoral bodies right down to the polling booths, and individual parties had to distribute their own ballot papers to polling stations - which smaller and poorer parties were unable to do.
Nor has Rodr'iguez done much to draw a distinction between the Colorado Party and the state, which were one and the same under Stroessner.
And, although public employees no longer find their Colorado Party ``contributions'' deducted from their paychecks at the source, ``they find it more than advisable to go on paying them,'' a European diplomat says.
Uprooting such longstanding traditions will be a slow job, opposition leaders acknowledge, but they are hoping to make a start in parliament, pressing Rodr'iguez to keep his promise of reforms to the electoral law and to the Constitution.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Party remains the overbearing political presence it was under Stroessner, and Rodr'iguez himself was a long-time, close associate of the fallen dictator.
Under these circumstances, says opposition lawyer Alejandro Ladalardo, ``We have the obligation to trust'' that Rodr'iguez is planning real reforms to Paraguay's corrupt and authoritarian political system, ``but we have the right to doubt.''