Paraguay's leftist president ousted by Congress

ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay’s Congress removed President Fernando Lugo from office after a lightning-quick impeachment trial on Friday that he said was tantamount to a coup but pledged to accept.

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Lugo, a silver-haired former Roman Catholic bishop who quit the Church to run for president on a social reform program, was found guilty of mishandling armed clashes over a land eviction in which 17 police and peasant farmers were killed last week.

In line with Paraguay’s constitution, Lugo was quickly replaced by Vice President Federico Franco, a fierce opponent of the president. Franco, a centrist Liberal Party politician, was sworn in on Friday evening.

“Although the law’s been twisted like a fragile branch in the wind, I accept Congress’ decision,” Lugo said in a sober address on national television.

Lugo, who compared his sudden impeachment to a coup, also urged supporters to ensure any demonstrations against his ouster were peaceful.

Several thousand Lugo supporters gathered outside Congress in the sleepy capital, Asuncion, and tried to break through police lines as the verdict was given. Police fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.

The Senate voted 39-4 to remove Lugo the day after lawmakers in the lower house agreed in a sudden, near-unanimous vote to impeach him.

Lugo, 61, a mild-mannered leftist who speaks the Guarani Indian language, vowed to champion the needs of poor Paraguayans when he was elected four years ago, ending six decades of rule by the Colorado party in one of South America’s poorest and most unstable countries.

The quickness of the impeachment trial raised concerns among other governments in the region and they dispatched their foreign ministers to Asuncion. Some warned of possible sanctions if Lugo was ousted.

Lugo’s election raised expectations among his supporters that he would tackle rampant corruption and gaping income inequalities in the soy-exporting nation of 6 million people.

He has struggled, however, to carry out his reform agenda, including his promise to redistribute land to peasant farmers, due to the opposition’s tight grip on Congress.

A cancer scare and several paternity scandals have also clouded his presidency and he had lost the support of lawmakers, inside his own coalition.

Paraguay has long been plagued by political instability and is known regionally for its marijuana crops and as a hub for smuggling and money laundering.

Paraguay’s next presidential election is in 2013 and Franco had been expected to run for office. It was not clear whether he would be able to run next year now because the constitution limits leaders to a single term.

Re-election has been banned since the constitution was overhauled following the 1989 fall of General Alfredo Stroessner’s brutal 35-year dictatorship.

Additional reporting by Didier Cristaldo in Asuncion, Lauren French and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Hugo Bachega in Rio de Janeiro and Hilary Burke in Buenos Aires; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Kieran Murray and Peter Cooney