Jorge Saenz/AP
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.

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.

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?

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.

A former Roman Catholic bishop, he promised change for the long-marginalized poor. But his reforms were continuously blocked by the opposition, and critics claimed he was ineffective. His administration was also marred by personal embarrassments, including a paternity scandal that dates back to his time as a clergyman.

This is not the first time Lugo’s foes have sought to remove him from office. But earlier this month, he lost the few political allies he had left.  When police sought to evict farmers squatting on a plot of private land June 15, the skirmish ended in the deaths of 11 farmers and six police officers, and the government was blamed for the botched operation. Under an article in the constitution, congress can call for the impeachment of a president if he or she is “performing poorly,” and based on this, Lugo was voted out of office almost unanimously.

‘A weak presidency' by design

Jose Maria Costa, a political analyst at the National University of Asuncion, says that the near unanimity of the vote shows that the nation supports Congress's move. “Asuncion is not in chaos, everything is calm,” he says. “The constitutional [rules] were followed exactly.”

In fact, while outsiders are trying to say democracy is broken in Paraguay, Lugo's ousting is a sign that it is indeed working, says Hugo Vera, the head of the Freedom Foundation in Asuncion. After the fall of the Stroessner dictatorship, the constitution was rewritten in 1992 to ensure a “weak presidency,” he says, which gives congress the final say.

While procedurally Lugo's impeachment might be legal, it occurred breathtakingly fast. The trial lasted just five hours, giving Lugo little time to build a defense. Some say the vote was opportunistic.

“The reason [the clause] is there is for extreme cases of abuse of democracy. It's not there because the opposition wanted to get him out of power because they don't like him. That is not the spirit of democracy,” says Mr. Lambert. “If you apply the idea to impeach a president for poor performance, how many presidents across the world would fall?”

Lugo's supporters in Paraguay have vowed to continue backing him. Protesters on Sunday held banners calling the new administration a "fascist dictatorship" and demanding agrarian land reform.

Farmers and peasants are planning mass protests against the new administration, says Pablo Ogeda, secretary of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement. "In a couple of days, we are hoping to have 50,000 peasants gathered in the center of Asunción," Mr. Ogeda says. "We are going to fight this."

International repercussions

Disapproval for the recent impeachment is echoed across the region. Mercosur, which refused the Franco administration an invitation to its summit this week, called the move the “most energetic condemnation of the rupture of democratic order.”

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez said he would cut off fuel sales, ambassadors have been recalled, and in neighboring Argentina – home to half a million Paraguayan immigrants – hundreds of protesters gathered in central Buenos Aires in support of Lugo.

"There's no doubt that this was a coup, an attempt to overthrow a popular government. We refuse to recognize the new administration,” says protester Rodrigo Peña.

Regional pressure could cause Paraguay to dig in its heels, as happened in the aftermath of the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009, but Daniel Wizemberg, a political analyst in Buenos Aires, says he believes it will most likely work in Lugo's favor. This is especially the case if Paraguay’s vital trade relations with Argentina and Brazil are impacted. “A return for Lugo is still in the cards,” Mr. Wizemberg says.

Cost to democracy

For many in the international community, Lugo's impeachment immediately recalled memories of the 2009 democratic crisis in Honduras, when Mr. Zelaya was escorted by the army in his pajamas to neighboring Costa Rica. Widely considered a modern-day coup, it was a rare dramatic black mark on the state of democracy in the Americas. But many say that while most countries have transitioned to functional democracies in the past 30 or 40 years, the weaknesses and limitations of democratic transition are clear.

Coups are one dramatic example of these democratic weaknesses, and have been perpetrated largely by the political right. "In the past, coups against popular governments were carried out by force," says Mr. Wizemberg in Argentina, citing the cases of Salvador Allende in Chile and Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina.

"Today, they are looking for another way to get into power after a decade of democratically-elected leftist governments. … In Paraguay, the opposition disguised the coup as legitimate and institutional. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales has just denounced an attempt by the police to do likewise," Wizemberg says. Rafael Correa in Ecuador also accused foes of trying to oust him in 2010.

But it's not just the right putting democracy at risk. Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, agrees that the move in Paraguay is a setback for democracy – even if it was technically legal. But he sees other nations also using legal instruments in ways that are not necessarily good for democracy.

Mr. Chavez, who has most vociferously denounced Lugo's ouster, has concentrated enormous amounts of power in the executive since taking office in 1999. The same argument can be made of President Correa in Ecuador, who has been under fire for clamping down on freedom of expression. “[These steps are] legal but it's not in the spirit of democracy and free press. This seems to me [in Paraguay] to have some of the markings of what Chavez has pioneered in recent years: using legal instruments for anti-democratic purposes,” Mr. Shifter says.

"The question is, what would have been the cost for democracy if they waited until the next election? It was not that far away," Shifter says. "There was a lot of unhappiness with Lugo, he had lost a lot of support, but that's why you have elections."

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