By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 21, 2008
BUENOS AIRES, April 20 -- A former Roman Catholic bishop ended the 61-year rule of Paraguay's dominant political party on Sunday, promising to replace the country's reputation for corruption with one of honesty.
With more than 90 percent of polling stations reporting, Fernando Lugo, who resigned the priesthood to launch his campaign, had a margin of about 10 percentage points over Blanca Ovelar, who was outgoing President Nicanor Duarte's choice to succeed him from the Colorado Party.
"Today we proved that the little guy also is capable of prevailing," Lugo, who captured 41 percent of the vote, said during a televised rally. There is no runoff, so the candidate with the most votes wins.
Lugo, 56, has long been known for his poverty relief efforts throughout Paraguay, where more than a third of the citizens live on less than $2 a day. He becomes the first president since 1947 elected outside the Colorado Party, which until Sunday's defeat had held the presidency longer than any party in the world.
During the campaign, Lugo cast himself as an independent who had dedicated his life to the country's underclass. In the 1970s, he became a proponent of liberation theology, a school of thought within the Catholic Church that encourages political activism on behalf of the poor.
His emphasis on leveling the country's income disparities has drawn comparisons to South American socialists such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. Lugo has repeatedly discouraged such comparisons, preferring to call himself a centrist who neither endorses nor condemns those neighboring leaders.
"Lugo is seen as a political outsider, and he appealed to a group of people who generally haven't been involved in the political process -- the rural poor," said Álvaro Caballero, an analyst who directed polls for the Development Information and Resource Center in Asuncion, the capital. "There's a feeling that even though Paraguay is experiencing economic growth, that hasn't been reaching the people."
The landlocked South American country's economy grew 6.4 percent last year, but it is still saddled with a reputation for contraband and corruption. Lugo's political ascent rode a wave of dissatisfaction with those labels, and he launched his campaign after leading anti-corruption rallies against Duarte.
After initial results were announced Sunday night, Lugo said he would work to change the country's image to one of efficiency and honesty, and he pleaded with Paraguay's other politicians to ensure that "never again will the political class make policies based on clientism."
About two-thirds of the country's 2.8 million registered voters cast ballots Sunday, election officials said, the highest turnout in nearly 20 years. Interest was driven by a colorful cast of candidates that promised a historic result, no matter who won.
Ovelar, a former education minister, captured about 31 percent of the vote, officials said. She had hoped to become Paraguay's first female president and the third woman elected president in a South American country in the past three years, after Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
A third candidate, Lino Oviedo, is a former general who was convicted for leading a 1996 coup attempt. He launched his campaign in October immediately after being released from jail. He got about 22 percent on Sunday, officials said.
Both Ovelar and Oveido conceded defeat Sunday night. "I'm content and happy because change was produced, even if it was not through me," Oveido said after congratulating Lugo on his victory.
Ovelar had also tried to campaign under the banner of change, promising to represent a renovated Colorado Party -- the only ruling party most Paraguayans have ever known. Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, the dictator who ruled from 1954 to 1989, was the party's most emblematic figure.
"A lot of people had come to think that the Colorado Party headquarters is the place you go for state services. That gives an idea of how ingrained the party had become," said Joel Fyke of the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America.