Paraguay could shift left in Sunday's presidential polls

A win by Fernando Lugo, a former liberal priest, would follow a leftist trend in South America.

Jorge Adorno/Reuters
Candidate: Fernando Lugo, presidential candidate of the Patriotic Alliance for Change, rallied supporters on Tuesday. If he wins, Paraguay would join a leftist trend in South America.
Rich Clabaugh

A former liberal priest with no experience in Paraguayan politics might be the force that unseats the world's longest-ruling party currently in power when voters head to the polls Sunday.

Fernando Lugo, who gave up the priesthood in 2006 for a presidential bid, is the front-runner in an election that could end 61 years of rule by the right-leaning National Republican Association, known as the Colorado Party.

Mr. Lugo's opponents have painted him as Latin America's newest leftist candidate, sure to follow in the footsteps of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez or Bolivia's Evo Morales. While he does favor center-left policies – something that plays well with pockets of society here – his main draw comes from having no political attachments in a nation rife with corruption.

"Lugo is different. He represents a new kind of opposition politician. [He] doesn't come from an obvious party background," says Brian Turner, a political scientist at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

Lugo himself refuses to be pigeonholed as part of the left-wing trend in South American politics. "There are people on the left who say I am from the right. There are people on the right who say I'm from the left," Lugo says. "I am a person of the center who has a certain distance from left and right, but with the capacity to unite both."

The impact of a Lugo win could be far-reaching. "There are [some] who would like to see an Evo Morales-type figure, but ... corruption is probably the key point," Professor Turner says. "The possibility that this [election] will lead to a rotation in government is very significant for some form of democracy in Paraguay."

According to the polling firm COIN, in a survey published in the newspaper Ultima Hora, Lugo leads by six points – assuming a 65-percent voter turnout. His lead slips as turnout lowers.

He is running against Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar, a former education minister who would be the first female president, and Lino Oviedo, a former general who was once a Colorado Party member and is now part of the opposition.

Lugo has touted himself as the candidate to fight corruption in this landlocked nation that suffered 35 years of dictatorship under Gen. Alfredo Stroessner and where, according to government figures, the percentage of those living in extreme poverty rose from 15 to 21 percent in 2006.

Inspired by the social activism of liberation theology that swept across Latin America in the 1960s, Lugo was ordained in 1977. For 10 years, he served as bishop of San Pedro, a hardscrabble town in the heart of Paraguay. Upon resigning from the priesthood, he said: "From today on, my cathedral will be the nation."

It is both his association with the church in this deeply conservative country and his disassociation with politics that has created a heterogeneous coalition backing his bid. "We cannot classify him by normal political means because his whole background is not in politics but in the church," says supporter Rafael Filizzola, the former mayor of Asunción.

"In this country there are very few politicians who can say they have had nothing to do with corruption," says Mr. Filizzola. "[And] he was always linked to popular causes. He knows intimately the problems of the ordinary Paraguayan."

His opponents have warned that he will imitate radical leftists elsewhere. This week, President Nicanor Duarte Frutos claimed that Venezuelan and Ecuadorean agitators, posing as election observers, were planning a wave of violence on Sunday.

Lugo supporters find hope in the prospect of historic change on Sunday.

In Asunción's Plaza de Democracia, Maria, owner of one of the many stalls that dot the capital city, says that better times are coming. "[The government] is so corrupt and the country is sinking," she says. "With Lugo, we expect work, better health, better education, and an end to hunger."

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