Monday, July 07, 2008

Duarte’s Resignation in Paraguay: A Final Blow to Stability and Accountability

Paraguay’s ongoing internal unrest, a direct result of current president Nicanor Duarte Frutos’ submission of his resignation on 23 June 2008, may end up shattering the fragile alliance that president-elect Fernando Lugo has managed to cobble together during the past few months. Lugo’s success is contingent upon the durability of the Alianza Patriótica para el Cambio (APC), the center-left coalition formed under the Partido Liberal Radical Autentico (PLRA)’s leadership involving ten smaller parties. Prominent senator Alfredo Luis Jaeggli’s resignation from the PLRA signals the deteriorating health of the coalition.

The possible disintegration of the APC results from disagreements on how the government should proceed in the wake of Duarte’s resignation. The president, cleared by the country’s Supreme Court to stand for a legislative seat, now finds himself in political limbo. Opposition members of Congress, contending that Duarte would be violating the constitution by not serving out the position for which he was elected, have refused to appear for debate, thus denying the legislature the quorum necessary to consider his resignation.

Regardless of the outcome of the situation, the dispute it is fostering within Lugo’s coalition could make it hard for the incoming president to achieve his ambitious goals. Lugo’s election was historic. By defeating the Partido Colorado, the country’s firmly entrenched hegemonic power, he became Paraguay’s first opposition leader to be elected in more than sixty years. His reform agenda seeks to combat the country’s crippling poverty, a situation contributed to by Paraguay’s institutionalized mechanisms of corruption based on drugs, contraband and implacable venality. Even in the best of circumstances, these objectives would be difficult to achieve.

Duarte’s recent machinations may complicate Lugo’s mandate even further, both by destabilizing the coalition and, interestingly, by exemplifying the precise lack of accountability that the incoming president hopes to eliminate. Some critics have argued that a desire for parliamentary immunity figures prominently among Duarte’s main motivations for his resignation. This claim remains unsubstantiated; however, it underscores the pervasive nature of Paraguay’s skewed institutions and endemic corruption.

A bid for legislative representation or parliamentary immunity In Paraguay, corruption takes many forms. From the bribes that citizens routinely pay to ensure access to utilities, to the misuse of millions of dollars of public funds by high officials, the country has a profound problem of state thievery on its hands. The 35-year reign of Alfredo Stroessner played a crucial role in the institutionalization of corruption in the country’s day to day existence. The dictator systematically undermined the opposition as well as drove freedom of expression to extinction through intimidation, severe repression, torture, and political assassination. Stroessner was ousted from office in a 1989 coup, but his Partido Colorado (PC) carried on in power, ensuring that the former dictator’s cronies could continue the patronage and clientelism which had become their modus operandi, as well as their perceived birth right.

Through one rigged election after another, the PC held onto power for more than six decades, the longest run of one-party hegemony in Latin American history. His tradition lives on. Most recently, PC President Juan Carlos Wasmosy (1993-1998) was convicted of transferring $6 million in public funds to a secret bank account in 2002. His successor, Raúl González Macchi (1999-2003), also from the PC, was forced to resign due to charges that he misused $16 million of government funds.

In 2002, Transparency International (TI) ranked Paraguay the most corrupt country in Latin America and the fourth most corrupt in the world. It is not surprising, then, that anti-corruption initiatives are the centerpiece in almost all of the country’s candidates’ bids for higher office. President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, elected in 2003, was no exception. The perceived success of his reforms pushed his popularity to an unprecedented 70%. During this period, the country’s score in TI’s annual report climbed from 1.6% to 2.1%, indicating at least some progress.

Despite this modest success, his opponents are now calling Duarte’s integrity into question. His bid for a senate seat, technically unconstitutional and yet approved by the country’s compliant Supreme Court, along with the submission of his resignation from the presidency after Lugo’s stunning victory, have cast a shadow on his motivations. As dictated by the country’s Magna Carta, every Paraguayan president is automatically granted a lifetime appointment to the legislature. This position allows former presidents a voice in debate but denies them a vote. Duarte and his supporters maintain that his bid for a Senate seat is merely an attempt to gain a vote. Others have speculated that the real basis of the move is to achieve parliamentary immunity for the outgoing president before Lugo and the PLRA have a chance to pursue corruption investigations into Duarte’s own derelictions in office.

COHA’s Recommendations Whatever the outcome of the case, any allegation of misconduct should be thoroughly investigated. Until high officials are held responsible for their actions, it will be difficult to combat all of the levels of corruption that so bedevil ordinary Paraguayans on a daily basis. Additionally, Lugo must remain vigilant and quash any internal disagreements over Duarte’s political status in order to preserve the governing coalition. The simple fact is that the Paraguayan political process depends upon strong alliances and it will be very difficult for the incoming president to implement progressive and highly constructive reforms with which he has identified himself, if the APC falls apart.

This analysis was prepared by Research Associate Jessica Bryant

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