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21 April 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:16am

Decency wins in Paraguay

Despite attempts to rig the vote in deeply corrupt Paraguay, the South American country has a new go

By Kenzie Eliasen

The victory in Sunday’s presidential elections in Paraguay for Fernando Armindo Lugo – bishop of 380,000 crawlingly destitute people in the diocese of San Pedro till he resigned in 2005 – is a tremendous victory for decent politics and civilised values. It is an immense relief in a country subjected to 34 years of General Alfredo Stroessner’s military dictatorship, to his foreign backers and to the widespread poverty it brought.

Lugo’s win shows the tide of reform, sometimes deep, as in Bolivia with Evo Morales; sometimes hesitating, as in Chile with Michelle Bachelet, is still sweeping over South America.

Happily, too, the cause of liberation theology which Lugo, 58, embraces is shown to be in rude health within the Catholic church itself. It has survived the dark years when Pope John Paul II, with his Polish distaste for things Russian, aligned the Catholic hierarchy with the baleful Ronald Reagan and the forces of far-right authoritarianism.

Lugo has promised to position the coalition he heads ideologically somewhere between Lula in Brazil and Chávez in Venezuela. Though his ramshackle country does not have the vast oil money of its neighbours, it is not without resources in an energy-hungry world. The Itaipú dam which Paraguay shares with neighbouring Brazil is one of the planet’s greatest hydro-electric schemes which sells most of its power to the Brazilians.

Lugo’s victory came in the face of sublime electoral trickery worked out by a Colorado Party desperate not to lose power it had exercised for six decades under Stroessner and the present incumbent President Duarte Frutos.

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Mabel Rehnfeldt, a star reporter on ABC Color, the country’s principal paper, jokes that the only reason Mathusalem – the man who, according to the Book of Genesis, lived to 969 – did not vote Sunday’s elections was that he had not taken out Paraguayan nationality.

She has shown how the authorities indulged in world-class vote rigging, when the main public opinion polls showed Lugo was the favourite to win, and thus bring an end six decades of the Colorados’ spoof democracy run for the benefit of the richest in a country of hungry paupers.

For years they had fixed it so that all government employees, including members of the armed forces, automatically became Colorados whether they liked it or not. Dues to the Party are automatically deducted from pay packets. Yet in its hour of need the Paraguayan establishment had to go on the attack with all sorts of original methods of cooking the electoral books, not least with the oldies.

For instance, during Sunday’s election they were awaiting 140 year old Don Froilán Galeano Noguera at a voting station at Guayaybý where he was duly registered. At La Recoleta they were on the watch for the appearance of 122 year old Don Juan Weber. At San Ignacio they were waiting for 111 year old Doña Elisa Quevedo. Among the 2.4 million registered voters published by the country’s Higher Court of Electoral Justice there were 100 centenarians and 7,700 aged 90 or above eligible to vote. Many old people were accompanied to the vote by shadowy figues who showed them how to express their preferences.

Special attention was also given to the dead at polling time. The electoral authorities assert trenchantly that many are in excellent health and able to use their vote.

For instance, Claudio Alejandro Martínez was twenty when six boys killed him early in 2007 for his shoes and his wallet. He was on the register. Eustacia Romero a devoted Colorado party member died four years ago at her home in Lambaré. But they had a voting slip ready for her at Caraguatay. Santiago Verdún died on 23 December 2003 but preserved his right to vote as did Francisco Maidana, dead these nine months.

In the traditional ways to which many in Northern Ireland became accustomed over many years, miracles could be wrought with one single registration. Mariano Alfonso, Susana Urbieta, María Manuela Bogarín and Cirila Medina Fernández all shared the same number on the electoral roll, viz. 57,524. Luckily there was no excuse for outrage or embarrassment, each of the four had the chance to vote at widely different polling stations and need never have met. There were nine instances of a single electoral number being shared by three electors while there were 628 cases of one number serving two people.

Moreover the people in charge of the voting register promoted the cause of decongestion in Paraguay’s crowded capital Asunción. They transferred that city’s voters – electorally at least – to charming country villages. Take Yasy Cañy, a delightful settlement in the distant and remote province of Canindeyú. It did not exist in 2003. But suddenly it was called into life by the electoral authorities when 7,462 voters were put on its electoral register; 461 more went onto the list in 2006 and 1,042 last year. Whether the 7,462 actually live there is something else. The majority of the voters’ names were just transferred from the capital. That was tantamount to telling a London voter to cast a ballot in the Outer Hebrides, or a New Yorker to do his civic duty in Honolulu.

Care was taken of voters young or old, alive or dead. In the town of Horqueta voters collecting their voting papers found they had already been marked for “Lista 1” the government party.

But finally poll rigging failed. The popular tide for Lugo and decency was unstoppable.

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