The heated debate over whether Paraguay should allow former presidents to be reelected continues unresolved. For now, none of the potential candidates currently favoured for the 2018 race – President Horacio Cartes and former presidents Fernando Lugo and Nicanor Duarte Frutos – can constitutionally run for the highest office of this small South American nation.
There’s been some progress: statements from the main players in the contest consistently indicate that the way to address this fundamental political problem is via constitutional amendment. The alternative – bringing a case before the Supreme Court – has now been discounted.
A great alliance?
Constitutional amendment would require approval from both chambers of the Paraguayan congress. Given that currently none of the three main parties has a majority, alliance is the only way forward. That’s how Cartes’ faction of the ruling Colorado Party reached agreement with Lugo’s progressive Frente Guasu (Great Front, in the Paraguayan Guaraní language), and a faction from the centre-right Liberal Party led by Senator Blas Llano, who is not running and supports Lugo’s candidacy.
But not everyone agrees with this move, and the odd political alliance has caused polarisation within the parties involved. So while Cartes, Lugo and Llano are lining up votes in Congress to support a constitutional amendment, opponents within their own parties are allying with other discontented factions from both right and left.
Opponents to reelection include the Colorado Senator Mario Abdo Benítez, leader of the Liberal Party, Efraín Alegre, and Mario Ferreiro, mayor of Asunción, Paraguay’s capital. All of them are also likely candidates in the 2018 race.
Since the end of last year, when this multi-party reelection alliance came together, rumours that it would present a bill for a surprise vote in Congress have run rampant. Still, though the vote count has reportedly been in order for some time, disagreements over the details seem to be preventing decisive action.
The plot thickens
One of the early obstacles to constitutional amendment was a debate over whether and when a current president must resign in order to be eligible for reelection.
Cartes’ supporters wanted him to be able to run while still in office (the custom in many countries), while Lugo’s team were demanding that he step down first. The discussion had reached an impasse when Frente Guasu representatives insisted that the contest would be unfairly skewed were Cartes to use state resources to help support his reelection bid.
Colorado officials finally acceded, allowing that Cartes would resign the presidency six months prior to the April 22 2018 election.
Other questions have since emerged about parliamentarians’ real commitment to supporting the constitutional amendment. Though proponents of reelection have consistently confirmed that they have the votes in Congress, the definitive final step – an actual vote – has yet to be scheduled.
Recent weeks have seen growing speculation that some in Congress are placing new demands for their support. And even some high-level Colorado Party officials have publicly raised doubts about the bill’s odds of passing.
Polls and preferences
Adding to this political intrigue, recent polls show that a majority of citizens oppose allowing presidential reelection. Fully 77% of Paraguayans are against it, on the grounds that it would be a violation of the nation’s constitution.
Even so, polls show Fernando Lugo as the country’s favourite candidate, with more than 50% of voters saying they’d cast their ballot for him. Beyond revealing a certain inconsistency in voter sentiment, these numbers demonstrate that Lugo is significantly more popular than Cartes, who garnered 12%.
This may – or may not – have something to do with the fact that Cartes was the principal behind-the-scenes orchestrator of the 2012 coup d'etat against Lugo.
Paraguay’s long debate over reelection has now dragged on far too long. And it might hurt the chance of actually amending the constitution, as time to meet certain institutional deadlines is running out.
Though recent statements from Colorado officials say that the government’s timeline is loose and that a bill may not be presented to Congress before early June, Lugo is of another mind: he says time has run out.
If the next steps aren’t taken soon, it is possible that this entire reelection strategy, underway since 2016, will fall apart.
The coming days will be critical in Paraguay, because it’s not just presidential reelection that’s being debated right now: at stake is the country’s immediate political future.