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Doubts about Paraguay's election.

PARAGUAY is an unusual country in several ways. The Spaniards drifted in, rather than riding in as conquerors. They intermarried thoroughly with the indigenous Guarani, so that today there are very few pure-bred Indians; the great majority of Paraguayans are mestizo and speak both Spanish and Guarani. And for a country of its intermediate stage of development, there is a lot of money in Paraguay, quite widely distributed. Without import duties, Paraguay is reputedly the largest importer of American cigarettes and Scotch whiskey, which melt profitably across the endless borders with Argentina and Brazil.

The political system also has its unusual features, dominated by a more than century-old two-party system in which the original ideological and sectoral identities of the parties have disappeared under the accretion of characteristics bestowed by critical historical junctures. The Colorados (Reds', though technically the National Republican Alliance) are the long-time governing party, thus associated with dictatorial practice, money corruption, electoral fraud, and military power and privilege. Because Liberal army officers once participated in an unsuccessful revolt, officers were until three years ago required to be members of the Colorado party. The Liberals are defined by their opposition to the Colorado party, and thus to all things that party represents.

Over the last two years an alliance called Encuentro Nacional has developed out of a variety of groupings -- Catholic, Social Democratic, |good government', progressive -- that want to transcend the deep and bitter Colorado-liberal hostility that fruitlessly consumes so much political energy. Because of the primitive stage of the Paraguayan political system, rudimentary ideas like honesty, democratic elections, and the depoliticization of the military provide the principal issues of politics. The social and economic questions of European politics are far away, and Encuentro includes |Opus Dei' religious militants as well as Catholic progressives. The issues it stresses could be expected to have more resonance among ex-liberal voters, but a substantial proportion of its vote -- conventionally put at 30 per cent -- comes from ex-colorados fed up with the ills of the traditional system.

Nevertheless, the official Colorado presidential candidate in the May 9 elections, Juan Carlos Wasmosy, mouthed the same platitudes about democratization and freedom as the other candidates. He was indeed the candidate sponsored by incumbent President Andres Rodriguez, who had led the successful revolt of 1989 against the 40-year-old dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Growing out of conflicts over personal questions, the revolt was only retrospectively interpreted, reputedly under the tutelage of the American ambassador, as a revolution for democracy and all other good things, so it was at first unclear how far the inherited system would be changed. It was true that both Liberals and Colorados, in the flush of the new enthusiasm for democracy, held primary elections to pick their candidates for President. It proved, however, that an unreconstructed supporter of Stroessner named Jose Maria Argana had the majority among Colorados and so -- after US Ambassador Jon Glassman intervened to head off a military annulment of the primary and cancellation of the elections -- the appropriate party body was purged and reorganized, whereupon it found that enough of Argana's votes were invalid to declare Wasmosy the winner. It was all pretty blatant, but seemed to be in the higher interest of preventing a return to the dictatorship, and so drew scoffing rather than principled objection from the opposition parties.

The general elections of May 9th then served to demonstrate that the Rodriguez forces had not altogether broken with the old system but had simply taken it over and made it work for them -- or rather they had modernized it and made it more subtle, so that it would work even under |democratic' conditions. Even so, they really gave the game away by having a judge order the closing of the country's borders on Election Day, ostensibly so that only bona fide residents of the country would vote. No one was fooled by this, since the stage at which to prevent the ineligible from voting is when they register to vote, not on polling day itself. A great many Paraguayans, perhaps as many as 20 per cent of the national population, and especially those disaffected with the traditional dictatorship, live and/or work abroad, especially in Argentina, so the closing of the border deprived the Liberals of many votes; perhaps not, as it turned out, of a winning margin, but enough to have made the difference in a closer election.

A great variety of methods for manipulating the vote were used, probably calculated so that if any one set of |irregularities' came to light, it could be explained away and be regarded by international observers as having been trivial or insufficient in itself to alter the outcome of the vote. The location of polling places was not announced ahead of time; some people were inexplicably not assigned to the polling places closest to their homes; variations between the ways people's names were carried on the electoral rosters and on their identity cards, or |cedulas', made them ineligible to vote. These rosters were not made available to the opposition parties far enough in advance so that errors could be corrected, as the law required.

But more traditional methods were employed: cedulas were bought or |rented'; voters were intimidated; counterfeit cedulas may have been produced so that somebody else voted by using the names of those residents abroad prevented from returning to vote. Only some of these more blatant practices could be documented -- no doubt too few, as several delegations of international observers, the most prestigious of which was led by Jimmy Carter, concluded, to have affected the outcome. That was -- surprise, surprise -- the victory of Wasmosy, which has been generally hailed as democratic enough, since the official count has given him 40 per cent to 32 per cent for the Liberals' Domingo Laino and about 23 per cent for Encuentro's Guillermo Caballero Vargas. But even supposing that all of the Colorados' vote-augmentation techniques, both traditional and modern, were in the event unneccessary since the division of the opposition forces would have given Wasmosy the victory in any case, troubling questions remain.

Before the election the number two man in the military and leader of the coup against Stroessner, General Lino Oviedo, had announced that after the election the military would continue to rule together with the Colorado Party (an old Latin American proverb has it |One does not lose by ballots what one has gained by bullets').

On election day, Saka, a civic organization, was operating a vote count parallel to the official one on the basis of results phoned in by its poll watchers. The dedicated phone lines through which Saka, was to have received these calls were cut at about 2.00 p.m. When Jimmy Carter protested directly to President Rodriguez the lines were restored, but only for about ten minutes. The colonel in charge of telecommunications refused to see Carter, who told a news conference that he believed the cutting of the lines was not accidental. The only purpose deliberatery cutting Saka's lines (which was followed up by the harassment and intimidation of the teenage messengers who constituted Saka's back-up information delivery system) could have had was to forestall the announcement of a result unfavourable to the government candidate. The lines were restored only after it had become clear that that candidate had a majority. It seems clear that if he had not led in the polls, means would have been found to conjure up a majority for him and create a fait accompli before non-official data could be published.

Is a vote |free and fair' if a governing party -- and its military allies -- enter an election determined to win by hook or by crook, but discovers it need only commit minor fraud in order to win? Or should one take the cynical view of most observers that any election in Paraguay, and especially one in which the opposition candidates are allowed to campaign freely, is enough of a stride forward to be welcomed?

That, at any rate, has been the position of the opposition parties, whose representatives in Congress voted to accept the election results reported by the National Electoral Board, despite registering their view that fraud had been committed. They were influenced, in making that decision, by the fact that the opposition will have a majority in the Congress. Although the Colorado legislative candidates ran somewhat ahead of Wasmosy (since some Colorado voters defected to Caballero Vargas in the presidential vote) the party fell short, under proportional representation rules, of a majority in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies. The Colorado hotheads who wanted to |adjust' the legislative vote totals to give the party majorities in the parliamentary chambers were restrained by, opposition statements that that would precipitate their boycott of parliament. Such a refusal of opposition members to take their seats would have denied democratic credentials to the new administration and perhaps have created problems for it in a |democratic' post-cold war Latin America.

And so perhaps Paraguay has crossed a watershed in its history. At all events, it has taken a giant step toward having a future less distinctive from its neighbours' than was its past.
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Title Annotation:general elections
Author:Needler, Martin C.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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