Paraguay: the change that wasn’t
Contrary to the polls’ predictions, the ruling Colorado Party comfortably won the Paraguayan elections on 30 April. While many had suspected a change might be on the cards, the party that has dominated Paraguayan politics for decades increased its share of power. The campaign saw personal attacks, corruption allegations, the spread of disinformation and anti-rights narratives prevail over informed debate about alternatives. A troubling surprise came from the performance of a new right-wing populist party that spoke to many people’s dissatisfaction with the machinations of a self-centred political class unresponsive to their problems. The mass post-election protests mobilised by their emerging leader bode ill for Paraguayan democracy.
On 30 April, over three million Paraguayans – 63 per cent of the country’s electoral roll – went to the polls. They had a lot of decisions to make: they were asked to choose a president and vice president, 45 senators, 80 House representatives, governors for each of the country’s 17 departments and members of departmental councils. An array of opinion polls saw a wide range of predictions, but as voting neared, the consensus was that the two presidential front-runners were neck-and-neck.
But the expected tight race didn’t materialise – and neither did any change in power. Forty-four-year-old economist Santiago Peña, the ‘renewed face’ of the ruling National Republican Association – widely known as the Colorado Party – won the single-round election with 42.7 per cent of the vote. He finished comfortably ahead of his nearest challenger, 60-year-old lawyer and three-time presidential hopeful Efraín Alegre, at the head of the opposition coalition Concertación Nacional para un Nuevo Paraguay, who received 27.4 per cent.
The conservative Colorado Party – the party of dictator General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled from 1954 to 1989, and in power for most of the time since – not only retains the presidency but also increases its representation in both houses of Congress and will control 15 out of 17 governorships – two more than it had before. Despite going into the election divided, it will control all three branches of government for the first time in decades.
There was some sign of change – just not the kind civil society was hoping for. It came embodied by an anti-rights authoritarian outsider whose meteoric rise – which may not be over yet – makes him a threat to democracy and human rights. Protests of his supporters that have mobilised since the elections suggest the challenges aren’t over.
Liberals vs. Conservatives: same old, same old
Two traditional parties dominate Paraguay’s political landscape: the Colorado Party and the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, commonly known as the Liberal Party. Both originated in the 19th century and both – particularly the Colorado Party – have built very strong party identities and count on large grassroots constituencies.
The only time the Colorado Party hasn’t been in power since dictatorship ended was between 2008 and 2012, following elections won by Fernando Lugo, a former bishop and leader of the Patriotic Alliance, a broad coalition of centre-to-left-wing social movements and parties that included the Liberal Party. This was a key test for Paraguayan democracy: the Colorado Party was ousted through elections, it accepted the results and power was handed over. But Lugo’s presidency was ultimately cut short by an impeachment process widely viewed as politically motivated. He was succeeded by his vice president, Federico Franco of the Liberal Party.
Encompassing several diverse factions, the Liberal Party has repeatedly sought alliances with other parties to challenge the Colorado Party’s power – but unlike 2008, when it had to leave the driver’s seat to a popular outsider, this time it was at the helm of the opposition coalition. Alegre, a relatively progressive Liberal, had a politically independent, more centrist female former minister as his running mate.
This doesn’t mean the opposition was united: also running was a more progressive opposition party, the Guasú Front, whose bid failed miserably, and a newer, more regressive party, the National Crusade Movement, whose performance was this election’s biggest surprise.
While a segment of the Guasú Front went with the Concertación, the party’s leadership – including former President Lugo, out of the equation due to serious health issues – joined a separate coalition, The New Republic, and saw its support collapse. It went from Paraguay’s third force to near extinction, with a meagre 1.4 per cent of the presidential vote and a single senator elected.
The Concertación also refused to enter an ideologically tricky alliance with the emerging challenger, José Luis Cubas and his National Crusade Movement. A business leader and former senator and deputy presenting himself as a political outsider, Cubas went on to win almost 23 per cent of the vote. He did so by campaigning on an anti-politics platform and mobilising ultra-conservative anti-rights discourse. Speaking to discontent with established politics, he denounced all politicians as part of a corrupt political caste and called for expanded executive powers to enable the president to dissolve the institutions where the political class supposedly nests, notably the National Congress.
With little structure and few resources, Cubas and his movement nonetheless enjoyed constant exposure in media outlets linked to Peña’s political godfather, former president and tobacco tycoon Horacio Cartes, who sought to shore Cubas up to split the opposition vote. And it worked: Alegre suffered his third and worst defeat and the ruling party won by the widest margin in three decades.
A couple of years ago, the Paraguayan electoral system changed: people previously chose between closed and blocked party lists, but now lists have been unblocked they can choose to favour individual candidates within the list of the party of their choosing. This has had the effect of forcing candidates from the same party to compete with each other, giving an edge to those with more charisma and the most resources.
The new system was first used in municipal elections in 2021 and – although the reform wasn’t its idea – it favoured the Colorado Party, which has more access to resources and a much larger pool of potential candidates who can compete for votes. The new rules helped the party increase its congressional representation by enabling it to do what it does best: encompass a wide spectrum of political options and behave simultaneously as government and opposition by offering alternatives from within the party.
Internal divisions also played to the Colorado Party’s advantage in the presidential race: they helped shield it from the consequences of having produced Latin America’s least popular president – Mario Abdo Benítez, whose popularity rating fell as low as 12 per cent. This was hardly a problem for Peña, since he’s in the camp of former president Cartes, Abdo Benítez’s mortal internal enemy.
These divisions and Cartes’s support may turn from advantage to liability once Peña is in office. Colorado Party representatives in Congress will likely split between those following Cartes and those who support Abdo Benítez, which means Peña might encounter the strongest opposition within its own party. And Peña has no power base of his own: Cartes is likely to remain the power behind the throne.
A polarised campaign
The elections were held in a tense atmosphere, with policy proposals taking a backseat to serious allegations of corruption involving high-level state officials and concerns about the growing political influence of organised crime and drug trafficking.
In what was denounced as foreign interference in the campaign, in January 2023 the USA imposed sanctions on Cartes and the current vice president, Hugo Velázquez Moreno, for ‘rampant corruption’, including over alleged long-term bribing of legislators and ties to Hezbollah. To help his protégé Peña, Cartes disappeared from public view for most of the campaign.
Paraguay is South America’s poorest country. Driven by agricultural exports, its economy has lately seen one of the region’s highest growth rates, but this wealth hasn’t been shared. Paraguay is highly unequal and plagued by chronic unemployment. Almost a quarter of its 7.5 million population are poor.
According to polls, Paraguayans’ biggest concerns are unemployment and rising prices of basic food items. But this wasn’t what the election campaign was about. Even the outrage caused by the widely publicised case of a woman who had to give birth on a hospital floor failed to refocus the campaign on ideas to improve the quality of life of the average Paraguayan.
The China question
One key difference between the major candidates concerned relations with China. Paraguay is one of a small number of countries worldwide that recognise Taiwan rather than China. Peña supported continuing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, while Alegre announced he planned to shift recognition to China as a means to gain access to its market, later backtracking and claiming he was only ‘thinking about it’.
Paraguay’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan initially had an ideological basis: they were established in the 1950s by the anti-communist military dictatorship. More recently, this allegiance has been reframed as being about values rather than ideology, as proclaimed by President Abdo Benítez in a recent visit to Taiwan.
Several Latin American states have shifted recognition from Taiwan to China in recent years, including most of Central America, where Belize and Guatemala are now Taiwan’s last allies. The latest to switch was Honduras, which did so under its new, left-wing administration in March 2023, provoking the question of how a government that says it’s committed to human rights could swing its weight behind one of the world’s worst rights violators. According to the Taiwanese Foreign Minister, Honduras asked Taiwan for billions of dollars in aid and compared proposals with China’s. Taiwan’s president declared that her government would not ‘engage in a meaningless contest of dollar diplomacy with China’.
Now only 13 countries worldwide – all, apart from Paraguay, located in Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific – officially recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. They are mostly small island states that rely heavily on foreign aid, which Taiwan provides. But China is increasingly trying to lure them with large amounts of investment and financial assistance. Its pressure on Paraguay became aggressive during the pandemic, when it used ‘vaccine diplomacy’, withholding vaccines to try to push the government to change sides.
To keep Paraguay onside, Taiwan has also offered economic benefits, including preferential treatment for its exports during the Cartes administration. Meat exports to Taiwan grew as a result but still make up a very small share of Paraguay’s exports. While continuing to back Taiwan, President Abdo Benítez has said that a significant investment would be needed for him to be able to resist pressures to switch.
For the opposition, it’s all about the economy and the possibility of accessing the Chinese market. But Taiwan has been explicit that countries in the region that have shifted recognition from Taiwan with such expectations have been disappointed, as the only thing they saw grow was their dependence on and trade deficit with China.
¿Perderá #Taiwán el único aliado que le queda en América del Sur?— DW Español (@dw_espanol) April 27, 2023
En unos días #Paraguay celebrará elecciones. Los resultados podrían determinar si Taipéi pierde otro de los pocos lazos diplomáticos que le quedan, el último en América del Sur./trc pic.twitter.com/W2fbVedvUy
The campaign was plagued by disinformation, including fake opinion polls, conspiracy theories and narratives of electoral fraud, pushing civil society and digital media to engage in intensive fact-checking and disinformation-debunking efforts.
Much of the disinformation focused on sexual and reproductive rights, falsely denounced as ‘gender ideology’, mobilising misogynistic and homophobic attacks. Women Concertación politicians linked to the feminist movement were the prime target, but the opposition coalition’s vice-presidential candidate, Soledad Núñez, wasn’t spared, despite the moderate image she was careful to project.
At least election day was peaceful. The European Union’s (EU) Observation Mission described the process as transparent and well-organised, although with a newly established system of electronic voting, observers identified the illegal practice of ‘assisted voting’: party representatives helped voters, presumably to try to influence their choice, in almost 20 per cent of polling stations observed. Observers also found party stands and the distribution of campaign materials within 200 metres of polling places, and some cases of vote-buying.
While direct interference in political choice appeared to be limited, there’s no question the Colorado Party benefited disproportionately from its large patronage network fuelled by access to public resources to gain votes.
The EU observer mission also pointed out that two domestic civil society groups, Alma Cívica and Decidamos, saw their applications for accreditation as national observers rejected by the electoral court, with a lack of means for the decisions to be reviewed in time.
Voices from the frontline
Marta Ferrara is executive director of Seeds for Democracy (Semillas para la Democracia), a Paraguayan civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes citizen participation, social equity and accountable governance.
This was a relatively peaceful election in which there was virtually no violence. What there was plenty of was disinformation, hate speech and social media attacks throughout the campaign. These aggressions strongly affected CSOs, including our own, Seeds for Democracy.
A defining feature of this election was the emergence of a third opposition political grouping with a populist-authoritarian and messianic style. Led by Paraguayo Cubas, it represents so-called ‘angry voters’, those dissatisfied with traditional parties and the way politics has been conducted for decades. This candidacy did not take votes away from the government but from the opposition, and unexpectedly came in a close third place.
The followers of Paraguayo Cubas, joined by people from practically all sectors of the opposition, many of them young people disaffected with politics, have taken to the streets en masse across the country to denounce fraud, despite the fact that their candidate got a very good vote, which they did not expect. The fact that an anti-establishment group is mobilising protests on a scale not seen in a long time represents a major challenge for the future of democracy in Paraguay.
The section of the Colorado Party that won the election is also one whose leaders attack civil society. They are anti-rights: they define themselves as ‘pro-life’, they are against equal marriage and sexual and reproductive rights and they attack all issues related to gender rights. That’s why I think civil society is in for a very tough few years. The various segments of civil society, especially those working on rights issues, are going to have to make big efforts to join together and undertake collective action.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Marta. Read the full interview here.
The day after
There’s plenty of room to improve the quality of Paraguay’ democracy. In 2021, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index downgraded the country from the status of ‘flawed democracy’ to ‘hybrid regime’, a combination of democratic and authoritarian components, and it has remained there since.
Allegations of fraud and demands for vote recounts have become something of a ritual in Paraguay’s elections, usually with little consequence. But what’s currently on display is no longer the staged grievances of an unsuccessful candidate: Paraguay is currently home to large and increasingly violent post-election protests.
The fact that an anti-establishment group is mobilising protests on a scale not seen in a long time represents a major challenge for the future of democracy in Paraguay.
Cubas first questioned the results on social media, and both him and Alegre went on to call for a partial recount of votes; at a later stage they were joined in solidarity by the Guasú Front.
Soon after, the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional cooperation body of the Americas, issued the preliminary report of its observation mission, stating that given the wide difference in the number of votes received by the winning candidate and the runner-up and the fact that it had not observed serious or widespread incidents, there was no reason to doubt the results.
Protests have continued regardless, leading to 1,800 police officers being sent to guard the headquarters of the Superior Electoral Court of Justice and more than 100 protesters being detained outside the court. In a dramatic turn of events, on 5 May Cubas was detained and remanded in custody on charges of disturbing public order, threats, attempting to impede elections, attempting to coerce constitutional bodies and anti-state resistance.
On 8 May, in the face of continuing protests, the Interior Minister expressed the view that the opposition led by Cubas was stirring up unrest in the attempt to find themselves ‘a martyr’ to legitimise violent demonstrations. It’s a volatile situation that calls for de-escalation and points to the need to build political trust and address the political failures that have made the anti-politics rhetoric of Cubas so appealing to so many.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Paraguayan government should work to defuse the situation created by post-election protests by following international best practices on the handling of demonstrations.
Paraguayan civil society should work together to audit election processes, guard democratic institutions and resist anti-rights advances.
International allies and donors should increase support for Paraguayan civil society to ensure the sustainability of activism for democracy and human rights.
Cover photo by Norberto Duarte/AFP via Getty Images