Paraguay between Three Bad Choices

The worse, the worser and the worst. Those are the choices confronting Paraguayans this Sunday when they head to the polls to elect a new president.

The leading candidate is Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who entered politics last year and endorses Hugo Chávez’s “socialism of the 21st century.” Running behind him in the polls is Lino Oviedo, an authoritarian retired general who spent 10 years in prison after leading a failed military coup in 1996. In third place is Blanca Olevar, of the ruling Colorado party, which has governed Paraguay without interruption for 61 years—longer than any other party in the world. The Colorado party is one of the most corrupt political organizations in Latin America (and that’s saying something). Fifteen out of its 20 leading Senatorial candidates—including the current president Nicanor Duarte—have been investigated for corruption.

Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Its GDP per capita (PPP adjusted) in 2006 was only $4,040. During 1995-2005, Paraguay was the world’s 10th slowest growing economy at 1.2 percent a year. Lack of an independent judiciary, crippling regulations on labor and businesses, and widespread corruption are the primary reasons why Paraguay is stuck in poverty.

Unfortunately things might get worse. This has been the bitterest political campaign since the country went back to democracy in 1989. President Duarte denounces that Venezuelan and Ecuadorean elements are within Paraguay ready to start violence once the Colorado party claims victory on Sunday. Candidate Lugo warns that the only way for him to loose is through fraud, and calls his sympathizers to be ready to go into the streets. In Paraguay there’s no runoff election, so Sunday’s winner will automatically become the next president.

This election has been mostly neglected by the international media. That could change on Sunday night.