ASUNCION (Reuters) - A sandal-wearing former bishop’s presidential election victory suggests Paraguay’s democracy has matured, but after 61 years of one-party rule his political foes may dictate the pace of change.
Fernando Lugo, a mild-mannered leftist who quit the cloth three years ago saying he felt powerless to help Paraguay’s poor, ousted the ruling Colorado Party in Sunday’s election with promises to tackle inequality and stamp out corruption.
“We’ll make democracy together!” the bearded, bespectacled 56-year-old former Roman Catholic bishop told cheering supporters on Sunday night, promising to put the poor first.
“It is the people who will build a democracy we Paraguayans deserve,” he told Canal 13 television early on Monday.
Local media trumpeted Lugo’s victory. Daily newspaper ABC carried a banner headline proclaiming “a dirty and degrading transition” under the Colorado Party had finally been buried. Two other newspapers led with the headline “Amen!”.
Lugo calls himself an independent and has steered clear of Latin America’s more radical left-wing leaders, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
He is however seen as a likely ally of moderate leftist presidents in the region, which has steadily turned away from the right-wing dictatorships, extremely corrupt governments and Marxist rebellions that were so prevalent in the late 20th century.
Lugo will take office on August 15 and has vowed to carry out agrarian reform to ensure poor peasant farmers can till their own land in a country where a small, wealthy elite owns the vast majority of farmland and cattle ranches.
“If you have a left candidate who is clearly identified with the poor ... and if he can break the grip of the longest ruling party in the world, a right wing party, I think it shows how much South America has changed and how much democracy has taken hold,” said Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a U.S. think tank.
But no one party was expected to win a majority in Congress, and that will likely force Lugo to cut deals with rivals if he hopes to get his proposals passed.
“We don’t know how much Lugo is going to change the government, or how much he can,” Weisbrot said, noting the Colorado Party’s powerful machine at every level of government.
“It will depend on what their response is. Are they going to play by the rules of democracy?”
The decision of Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar, who was bidding to be Paraguay’s first female president, to concede defeat as results showed Lugo with about 41 percent of the vote and a lead of 10 percentage points, was a good start.
Outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos called the poll historic.
“For the first time in our history, one party will transfer power to another without a coup, without bloodshed and without fighting among brothers,” he said on Sunday.
Voter turnout was high, at around 65 percent.
The Colorado Party has dominated Paraguayan politics since it took power in 1947, and it backed Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s brutal 35-year dictatorship until helping to oust him in 1989.
Human rights groups say nearly 1,000 people were kidnapped and killed during military rule, many of them suspected of being communist sympathizers, and that thousands more were tortured or forced to leave the country.
Many ordinary Paraguayans had become sick with what they see as a corrupt establishment that has failed to safeguard the poorest in a country landlocked by wealthier neighbors Argentina and Brazil and economically dependent on its agricultural and hydroelectric power exports.
Lugo campaigned heavily on trying to charge Brazil more money for the power it imports from the jointly owned Itaipu hydroelectric plant — following in the footsteps of Bolivia, which negotiated to charge its neighbors more for natural gas.
“Lugo faces a tough task. There is a great deal to be done,” said 35-year-old economist Horacio Santander, standing among tens of thousands of Lugo supporters in a square in central Asuncion after news of his victory broke.
“It is time to start over with an honest, less corrupt government,” he added, as firecrackers resounded around Asuncion and Lugo’s supporters waved national flags.
With reporting by Hilary Burke, Mariel Cristaldo and Antonio de la Jara; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray