AFTER decades under a repressive dictatorship, Paraguayans are enjoying something of a political springtime. Gen. Andr'es Rodr'iguez, the country's interim president and the ruling Colorado Party's nominee for the May 1 election, has promised that if elected he will hand over government to a civilian successor in 1993.
If this civilian successor happens to be elected from the opposition ranks, it would be a watershed in Paraguay's turbulent history. (In the 178 years since independence from Spain, there has never been a change of ruling party through the ballot box.)
In recent concessions, the Colorado-dominated Electoral Council has allowed indelible ink to be used to curb ballot fraud; the state-run radio station has allowed some air time for opposition parties; and a five-week period has been granted for adding eligible voters to the rolls.
Despite these changes, there seems little doubt that Rodr'iguez will win the May vote.
The three months between the Feb. 3 ouster of dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner and the elections, observers say, is insufficient time for the opposition to break the Colorados' monopoly.
The electoral concessions, critics imply, are largely cosmetic. For instance, the new names on the electoral rolls will merely be added to old lists, which ``are totally irrelevant in corresponding to real Paraguayans,'' says opposition candidate Domingo Laino. ``Thousands of ghosts and children used to vote for Stroessner,'' says Dr. Laino, who is Rodr'guez's closest rival.
The government has also refused to change the electoral law under which the party with the most votes, no matter how short of a majority, automatically receives two-thirds of the 90 seats in the bicameral Congress. Coalitions are also banned, which further favors the Colorados.
Seven parties have agreed to put forward candidates. They include Laino's Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), the Christian Democratic Party, and the social-democrat Febreristas, all of whom abstained from General Stroessner's rigged elections.
Opposition leaders seem ready to accept the risk that, by participating, they could legitimize Rodr'iguez's coup and maintain the Colorado-military axis that underpinned Stroessner's tyranny. But Laino has threatened to withdraw from the process if Rodr'iguez ``does not alter the Electoral Law, and does not set up a new constituent assembly.''
Laino has promised respect for human rights, honesty, and hard work - all potential vote winners in a country where corruption has been rife. (Twelve of Stroessner's former officials are on trial for illegally amassing fortunes allegedly worth more than Paraguay's $2.2 billion foreign debt.)
Much of Laino's support comes from the countryside, where the maldistribution of land is acute. His solution for the estimated 350,000 peasants without land is an agrarian reform encompassing ``a new policy of land redistribution, a reorientation of credit to the poorer sectors, and the promotion of cooperatives.''
The great unknown is whether Rodr'iguez's ``liberalization from above'' will allow peasants to organize freely to demand land.
Prize-winning novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, back here after 42 years in exile, is hopeful of continuing change: ``From his behavior I think General Rodr'iguez has the best intentions to take Paraguay on the road to democracy,'' he says, adding, ``Perhaps this is our last chance to join the road.''