ASUNCION (Reuters) - Ousted Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo said it would take a miracle for him to return to power after Congress forced him from office in a matter of hours last week in a move that prompted criticism and sanctions abroad.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Friday to remove Lugo for failing to keep the peace after 17 police and peasant farmers died in clashes over a land eviction. The leftist leader was a year from completing a five-year term.
His former vice president and one of his harshest critics, Federico Franco, replaced him as president.
Lawyers for the former Roman Catholic bishop questioned the constitutionality of his lightning-quick impeachment. But the Supreme Court ratified its legitimacy, as did the country’s top electoral court.
“All my legal possibilities ended yesterday when the process was declared constitutional and with the electoral court’s recognition (of the Franco administration),” Lugo told Reuters in an interview held in the backyard of a political party office in the modest capital, Asuncion.
“Legally there is no other way to reverse this situation,” the bearded former leader said, sitting before a large red, white and blue national flag.
“There’s a chance - but it may be impossible, miraculous - that Congress itself says we have erred and they backtrack,” he said, dressed casually and looking weary. “This political path exists ... but it seems impossible to me.”
The president of Congress, Jorge Oviedo Matto, shrugged off international pressure on Monday and said the change of government was irreversible.
Paraguay, a landlocked, soy-exporting nation of 6 million people that is one of the poorest in South America, has a long history of political instability and military rule.
Lugo, a mild-mannered leftist whose presidency was clouded by several paternity scandals and a cancer scare, has shifted position on the impeachment drive.
He initially said he accepted Congress’s decision to remove him, prompting some governments to recognize Franco’s administration.
But he adopted a tougher line as regional pressure mounted. Many governments in Latin America, which was scarred by coups and political instability in the 1970s and 1980s, protested that Lugo was denied the right to a proper defense.
They want to send a stern warning about the consequences of removing a democratically elected leader, even if Lugo’s chances of returning to power appear remote.
Franco’s administration has been banned from attending a summit this week of the Mercosur trade bloc, which also groups Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, and many countries have called back their ambassadors permanently or for consultations.
Officials say Paraguay could be suspended from Mercosur and the UNASUR group of South American nations, which plans to hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the matter on the sidelines of the Mercosur summit in Argentina.
Lugo had said he would attend this week’s Mercosur gathering, but he was unsure on Tuesday.
“I’m on the verge of deciding not to travel on Friday because ... I don’t want to pressure either the presidents or the countries of the region, so they can make decisions (freely),” Lugo said.
Instead, the 61-year-old said he would meet with supporters throughout Paraguay to explain why he is calling his impeachment a “congressional coup.”
Although his ouster prompted a chorus of international concern, only a few low-key demonstrations have been held in Asuncion to press for his reinstatement.
In June, a local poll showed 60 percent of Paraguayans believed Lugo was not solving the country’s problems while only 12 percent thought he was.
Lugo vowed to improve the quality of life of low-income families when his election in 2008 ended six decades of rule by the conservative Colorado party. But he struggled to push reforms through Congress such as land redistribution to poor peasant farmers.
When his allies from Franco’s Liberal Party formally withdrew support for him on Thursday, they cleared the way for the impeachment trial.
Officials in Brazil and Uruguay have said they would not support economic sanctions against Paraguay.
“I don’t want any ... economic blockade against the Paraguayan people but I think the region’s governments have to take certain measures against this illegitimate government,” Lugo said.
Additional reporting by Didier Cristaldo; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Will Dunham