Paraguay ruler chalks up election win amid greater opposition activity

Unprecedented levels of political conflict have marked the lopsided - and highly suspect - election victory of Paraguayan leader Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. Paraguayans who have known nothing but 34 years of fear-inspired quiet on the political front witnessed a peak in frequency and boldness of opposition activity over the Feb. 14 election weekend.

And it was matched at every turn by government retaliation. Police attacked, blocked, and dispersed political gatherings of opposition groups promoting election abstention or voting with a blank ballot. Police snatched a leading opposition figure, Domingo La'ino, and three associates from their car and held them incommunicado for 12 hours Sunday.

The intensified activity has political and human rights activists concerned that President Stroessner's government will escalate attacks on the growing opposition of the central-left to right-wing groups not recognized by the government.

``Stroessner wants to give the impression he is so strong that no one nationally or internationally can challenge him,'' says Carlos Alfredo Gonz'alez, dean of the Catholic University Law School.

Despite public hope that Stroessner will try to improve his human rights image because of Pope John Paul II's planned May visit, Mr. Gonz'alez says the weekend's repression is evidence to the contrary. He notes that Interior Minister Sabino Montanaro said last week the government ``worries little'' about the Roman Catholic Church's opinion of the political situation. The church is the largest anti-Stroessner institution.

Though Stroessner's control still seems ironclad, observers say, it is being gradually weakened as the opposition gathers a broader popular base.

Official statistics show Stroessner has won 90 percent of the vote over eight elections. That is at odds with the obvious increase of anti-Stroessner sentiment.

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