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Democracy in Paraguay: at work or under threat?

After Fernando Lugo's impeachment last week, many question the state of democratic institutions not only in Paraguay, but Latin America as a whole.

By Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer, Correspondent / June 26, 2012

Paraguay's new President Federico Franco speaks at a swearing-in ceremony for his newly-named education minister at the Presidential Palace, in Asuncion, Paraguay, Tuesday, June 26. Pictured at left is Parliament President Jorge Oviedo Matto.

Jorge Saenz/AP

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Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina

A president's popularity plummets. His remaining allies turn against him, and he is swiftly removed from office. Democracy playing out? Or democracy under threat?

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That is the question Latin America is weighing this week, after the Paraguayan senate voted the nation's president, Fernando Lugo, out of office on June 22 for failing to maintain order after a bloody land eviction. Mr. Lugo, who is vowing to take his post back, called it a “parliamentary coup,” and leaders across the region agree. They have recalled their ambassadors and Paraguay's membership in regional bodies and are meeting later this week to discuss what's next.

Yet both inside and outside Paraguay, many are adamant that no coup occurred. They say congress followed constitutional procedure to the letter to remove a president who was performing poorly and lost support across the political spectrum, even among his allies.

The two sides may never find common ground, as was the case in the Honduras crisis of 2009, but observers say the more important point – or cautionary tale – is that the demise of Mr. Lugo signals vulnerabilities in the democratic system in Latin America today that go well beyond Paraguay. While Latin America is no longer the region of the 1970s and 1980s when strongmen ruled and coups were simply a part of political life, leaders have amassed executive power, clamped down on the media, and in the most recent case in Paraguay, used institutions to interpret the law to force a resignation – showing how tenuous democracy is.

“This trial should not be viewed in isolation,” says Peter Lambert, an expert on Paraguay at the University of Bath. “What happened is the culmination of a long period of the last four years of opposition to Lugo which has been pushed to the extremes of constitutionality and legality," Mr. Lambert says. "[An] opposition that goes against the spirit of democracy.”

The consequences of the impeachment are still reverberating. On the day of the vote, Lugo accepted it and called for peace across the country, while vice President Federico Franco, following constitutional protocol, was quickly sworn in as Paraguay's new leader. Mr. Franco will hold the post until August 2013, when Lugo's term would have ended. By the time the weekend ended, however, Lugo changed course, establishing a shadow government and vowing to attend a regional Mercosur trade bloc summit this week where he will plead his case for recognition as the legitimate leader of Paraguay.

“I will not collaborate with Franco’s government because it is bogus. It has no legitimacy,” Lugo said.

Political outsider

Paraguay is an impoverished, landlocked country that is a major soybean exporter but better known for contraband, lawlessness, and having one of the most inequitable land distributions in the world. The long-ruling Colorado Party, which governed for 61 years – 30-plus of it under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner – was voted out of office with Lugo’s 2008 victory. Lugo was one of a string of left-leaning, political outsiders elected across the region in the first decade of the 21st century.

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