A former Roman Catholic bishop who championed the downtrodden and challenged the long-entrenched political elite was elected Paraguay’s president Sunday, ending six decades of one-party rule in this South American nation.
Fernando Lugo, 56, dubbed “the bishop of the poor,” was leading by 10 percentage points with more than 90% of the results in, electoral officials said. He had about 41% of the vote to about 31% for his chief opponent, Blanca Ovelar of the ruling Colorado Party. Ovelar called the margin of victory “irreversible” and conceded defeat in the evening.
Lugo’s victory was historic in Paraguay, where the Colorado Party has held power even longer than the communist regimes of China, North Korea and Cuba. Spurring his triumph was widespread discontent with the ruling party’s long record of corruption, cronyism and economic stagnation.
The election of Lugo was the latest triumph by a left-leaning leader in Latin America, where a so-called pink tide of democratically elected presidents has altered the region’s political map in recent years.
“The humble citizens are the ones responsible for this change,” Lugo said at a downtown news conference as his lead grew. “Paraguayans have taken a great step toward civic maturity. . . . We have opened a new page in this nation’s political history.”
Thousands of Lugo’s backers, many waving Paraguayan flags, gathered Sunday evening in the streets of this tropical capital to celebrate. Joyous supporters sang, banged drums, set off fireworks and honked vehicle horns as word spread that the upstart ex-cleric was headed for victory.
The bearded, bespectacled Lugo, who has never held political office, ran on the same “change” motto that has become a buzzword of the U.S. presidential race.
Lugo vowed to alter the course of his landlocked nation of 6.6 million best known in much of the world for its rampant contraband, crushing poverty and bleak history of dictatorship under a former Colorado Party leader. Many Paraguayans immigrate to neighboring Argentina and Brazil, as well as to Europe and the United States, in search of economic opportunities.
Lugo said he would fight endemic corruption, institute long-delayed agrarian reform, invest in education and social needs, and renegotiate Paraguay’s income from two huge hydroelectric projects with Brazil and Argentina. He argued that Paraguay was failing to benefit from the massive amounts of excess electricity its dams produce.
The days of relying on ruling-party contacts for jobs and other needs will end, Lugo declared. Supporters said his time as a priest and bishop cemented his honest image in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation.
“This country needs a change,” said Natalia Talavera, 26, a first-time voter and mother of two who cast her ballot at a public school downtown. “I voted for change, for Fernando Lugo. I just hope they let him have the victory he deserves.”
Lugo had been leading in polls, but many experts had doubted that he could overcome the Colorado Party’s well-oiled political machine. However, the Colorados suffered a divisive primary fight that weakened support. And Ovelar, a former education minister, lacked charisma and the political skill of other party stalwarts.
Lugo survived a nasty campaign during which opponents tried to link him to terrorists, guerrillas, kidnapping gangs and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Lugo denied any links to armed groups and denied that he would be a puppet of Venezuela’s leftist leader.
The U.S. Embassy kept a low profile during the heated campaign, as diplomats sought to avoid any hint that Washington was meddling in Paraguayan affairs.
Even before Lugo’s election seemed assured, international observers said the voting appeared clean and without disruptive incidents, apart from some scuffles at polling sites. Lugo and others had voiced fears that ruling-party operatives would attempt widespread fraud.
“My congratulations go out to Paraguayans,” said former Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Emma Mejia, who headed an observation mission from the Organization of American States. “People were able to exercise their democratic right to vote. This is a historic day for Paraguay and for Latin America.”
Lugo, who stepped down from the priesthood to seek the presidency, is believed to be the first former Catholic bishop to be elected a chief of state.
Despite his rhetoric, he has refused to be labeled a leftist, saying he is a centrist responding to the needs of the downtrodden and the teachings of Liberation Theology, a Catholic doctrine favoring the poor and subjugated.
The Vatican has assailed Liberation Theology for Marxist tendencies.
The Vatican also contends that Lugo remains a priest and has violated church law by seeking political office. But Lugo says he is no longer a priest. How that dispute will be resolved remains unclear. Rumors have swirled here that some resolution is in the works between Rome and Asuncion.
The election is a clear rebuke of outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who is barred by the constitution from seeking reelection. He pushed for the controversial candidacy of Ovelar, who will go down in Paraguayan history as the Colorado Party’s biggest loser. She would have been the country’s first female president.
The Colorado Party’s time in power includes the 35-year dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the anti-communist strongman who was ousted in 1989. But the party survived Stroessner and went on to dominate almost two decades of shaky democracy -- until Sunday’s stunning defeat.
Once his victory is certified, Lugo will take office Aug. 15 for a five-year term.