There are 274 days until Jan. 20, 2009.
Paraguay elects ex-bishop as new president
The ruling party concedes power after six decades.
Left-leaning Fernando Lugo ran on a platform of 'change.'
By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 20, 2008
ASUNCION, PARAGUAY -- A former Roman Catholic bishop
who championed the downtrodden and challenged the
long-entrenched political elite was elected Paraguay 's
president Sunday, ending six decades of one-party rule
in this South American nation.
Fernando Lugo, 56, dubbed "the bishop of the poor," was
leading by 10 percentage points with more than 90% of
the results in, electoral officials said. He had about
41% of the vote to about 31% for his chief opponent,
Blanca Ovelar of the ruling Colorado Party. Ovelar
called the margin of victory "irreversible" and
conceded defeat in the evening.
Lugo's victory was historic in Paraguay, where the
Colorado Party has held power even longer than the
communist regimes of China , North Korea and Cuba .
Spurring his triumph was widespread discontent with the
ruling party's long record of corruption, cronyism and
The election of Lugo was the latest triumph by a
left-leaning leader in Latin America , where a so-called
pink tide of democratically elected presidents has
altered the region's political map in recent years.
"The humble citizens are the ones responsible for this
change," Lugo said at a downtown news conference as his
lead grew. "Paraguayans have taken a great step toward
civic maturity. . . . We have opened a new page in this
nation's political history."
Thousands of Lugo's backers, many waving Paraguayan
flags, gathered Sunday evening in the streets of this
tropical capital to celebrate. Joyous supporters sang,
banged drums, set off fireworks and honked vehicle
horns as word spread that the upstart ex-cleric was
headed for victory.
The bearded, bespectacled Lugo , who has never held
political office, ran on the same "change" motto that
has become a buzzword of the U.S. presidential race.
Lugo vowed to alter the course of his landlocked nation
of 6.6 million best known in much of the world for its
rampant contraband, crushing poverty and bleak history
of dictatorship under a former Colorado Party leader.
Many Paraguayans immigrate to neighboring Argentina and
Brazil, as well as to Europe and the United States, in
search of economic opportunities.
Lugo said he would fight endemic corruption, institute
long-delayed agrarian reform, invest in education and
social needs, and renegotiate Paraguay 's income from
two huge hydroelectric projects with Brazil and
Argentina. He argued that Paraguay was failing to
benefit from the massive amounts of excess electricity
its dams produce.
The days of relying on ruling-party contacts for jobs
and other needs will end, Lugo declared. Supporters
said his time as a priest and bishop cemented his
honest image in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation.
"This country needs a change," said Natalia Talavera,
26, a first-time voter and mother of two who cast her
ballot at a public school downtown. "I voted for
change, for Fernando Lugo. I just hope they let him
have the victory he deserves."
Lugo had been leading in polls, but many experts had
doubted that he could overcome the Colorado Party's
well-oiled political machine. However, the Colorados
suffered a divisive primary fight that weakened
support. And Ovelar, a former education minister,
lacked charisma and the political skill of other party stalwarts.
Lugo survived a nasty campaign during which opponents
tried to link him to terrorists, guerrillas, kidnapping
gangs and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Lugo denied
any links to armed groups and denied that he would be a
puppet of Venezuela 's leftist leader.
The U.S. Embassy kept a low profile during the heated
campaign, as diplomats sought to avoid any hint that
Washington was meddling in Paraguayan affairs.
Even before Lugo 's election seemed assured,
international observers said the voting appeared clean
and without disruptive incidents, apart from some
scuffles at polling sites. Lugo and others had voiced
fears that ruling-party operatives would attempt
"My congratulations go out to Paraguayans," said former
Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Emma Mejia, who headed
an observation mission from the Organization of
American States. "People were able to exercise their
democratic right to vote. This is a historic day for
Paraguay and for Latin America ."
Lugo, who stepped down from the priesthood to seek the
presidency, is believed to be the first former Catholic
bishop to be elected a chief of state.
Despite his rhetoric, he has refused to be labeled a
leftist, saying he is a centrist responding to the
needs of the downtrodden and the teachings of
Liberation Theology, a Catholic doctrine favoring the
poor and subjugated.
The Vatican has assailed Liberation Theology for
The Vatican also contends that Lugo remains a priest
and has violated church law by seeking political
office. But Lugo says he is no longer a priest. How
that dispute will be resolved remains unclear. Rumors
have swirled here that some resolution is in the works
between Rome and Asuncion .
The election is a clear rebuke of outgoing President
Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who is barred by the
constitution from seeking reelection. He pushed for the
controversial candidacy of Ovelar, who will go down in
Paraguayan history as the Colorado Party's biggest
loser. She would have been the country's first female president.
The Colorado Party's time in power includes the 35-year
dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the
anti-communist strongman who was ousted in 1989. But
the party survived Stroessner and went on to dominate
almost two decades of shaky democracy -- until Sunday's
Once his victory is certified, Lugo will take office
Aug. 15 for a five-year term.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times