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Six decades of one-party rule ended in Paraguay

Former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won a historic victory in Paraguay's presidential election Sunday, ending more than six decades of one-party rule.
Image: Former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo
Fernando Lugo, center right, and his running mate Federico Franco, center left, greet supporters and celebrate their victory in Asuncion, Paraguay on April 20, 2008.    Monica Matiauda / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The world’s longest-ruling political party lost its six-decade grasp on power in Paraguay with the presidential victory of a former Roman Catholic bishop.

Political newcomer Fernando Lugo, a charismatic 56-year-old who resigned from the church to run for president, put an end to the Colorado Party’s 61-year reign in Sunday’s election, rallying voters against political corruption and economic disarray.

Emerging from a 1947 civil war, the Colorado Party was marked by the right-wing dictatorship of the late Gen. Alfredo Stroessner until his ouster in 1989.

Its candidate in Sunday’s election, Blanca Ovelar, a protege of President Nicanor Duarte, had sought to become Paraguay’s first woman president but conceded defeat on Sunday.

Lugo said Monday that his first priority would be to help Indians mired in poverty and to seek more revenues from Brazil from a dam on a river border between the two nations.

Interviewed by The Associated Press, Lugo also issued a personal apology to the pope for his incursion into politics and said he hoped to return to his post as bishop once his presidency ends.

He also reassured the bureaucracy built over decades by the Colorado Party, promising “safety and tranquility for the employees of the state so that the country keeps functioning.”

The triumph of Lugo’s eclectic opposition coalition — the Patriotic Alliance for Change — is the latest in a series of electoral wins by leftist, or center-left, leaders in South America.

Mark Weisbrot, at the Washington think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Lugo’s election is a sign of “deep and irreversible ... changes sweeping Latin America.”

Bush administration sees 'step forward'
The U.S. on Monday signaled willingness to work with the new government. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that the elections are a “step forward” after Paraguay’s “rather difficult history in terms of the development of democracy.”

But Lugo faces many challenges: 43 percent of the country’s 6.5 million people live in poverty, illiteracy is high, 300,000 landless peasant farmers are clamoring for help and Paraguay’s corruption is notorious. Lugo, who has never held public office before, forged his anti-Colorado coalition just eight months ago.

For now, the opposition is basking in its victory, holding gleeful celebrations in the Paraguayan capital and outlying cities.

“You have decided what has to be done in Paraguay. You have decided to be a free Paraguay,” Lugo told cheering thousands.

Those who cheered him will be looking to him to keep his promises. Rodney Bernal, a hotel security guard who watched horn-honking opposition celebrations peter out early Monday, said promises by politicians — even Lugo — have made him weary.

“Lugo made a lot of promises and we’re tired of promises. We’ll have to wait at least a year to see if he does anything, especially if he can give work to young people,” he said.

Maria Ines Gonzalez, waving a flag of the opposition Liberals — the biggest force in the left-of-center coalition — said she hopes Lugo succeeds.

“My dad is a construction worker but he’s out of work because people don’t have money to build anything,” she said. “Lugo is a priest who understands the needs of the poor and I believe he is going to solve many social problems.”

The Colorado Party came of age under Stroessner, who seized power in 1954 and adopted the party as an acquiescent “twin pillar” alongside his repressive military.

After Stroessner’s ouster, free elections led to a succession of Colorado presidents despite sporadic political unrest and party infighting. But countless corruption scandals blamed on party elites beginning in the late 1990s engendered new dissatisfaction with a party.

I'm no Chavez, Lugo says
Lugo became a bishop in 1994 but resigned the post in December 2006 to sidestep Paraguay’s constitutional ban on clergy seeking office. He says he is neither on the left nor the right and has distanced himself from the region’s more radical leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Eight months ago, Lugo melded leftist unions, Indians and poor farmers into a coalition with Paraguay’s main opposition party, the conservative Authentic Radical Party. He now vows to use his five-year term, which begins Aug. 15, to right economic problems dating back decades.

About 100,000 Paraguayans are identified as Indians from 17 ethnic groups, according to the most recent national census. Lugo is fluent in the Guarani Indian language, an official language in Paraguay alongside Spanish.

With about 13,000 of 14,000 balloting stations counted, election officials said Lugo had 41 percent of the vote, Ovelar had 31 percent and former army chief Lino Oviedo had 22 percent.