The Case of Paraguay: Another Failed Latin Democracy? by Richard Hoffsommer @ University of Memphis
Having emerged from a brutal dictatorship that spanned decades, Paraguay is now considered a representative democratic republic. Establishing a new constitution in 1992 and holding internationally proclaimed free and fair elections led many to believe that the state has moved beyond its dictatorial past; however, the question remains, to what extent has Paraguay’s democracy consolidated?
In light of recent events, including both the impeachment of the first non-Coloradon president in 2012 (Colorado being the party in control for 60 years through dictatorship and transition to democracy) and the 2017 attempt by President Cartes to change the constitution, one may easily and rightly argue that Paraguay has simply not consolidated and the democracy at large remains rather weak.
2012 marked the first time in six decades that a President had not hailed from the Colorado party. Dictator Alfredo Stroessner seized power in a coup d’état in 1954 and saw members of his party remain in power after the country established a new constitution in ‘92. Bishop Fernando Lugo’s election served as a huge milestone for Paraguay’s democracy as the ruling party peacefully transitioned power to the opposition after people freely and fairly voted him in. However, soon thereafter, both the Chamber and the Senate voted overwhelmingly to impeach president Lugo resulting in many South American leaders to proclaim the action as a political coup and further led them to threaten to boycott Paraguay’s membership in various economic institutions. Nonetheless, Paraguay’s supreme court upheld the Senate and Chamber’s action while many Western countries saw the action as both undemocratic and illegal.
2013 ushered in yet another Coloradon leader by the name of Horacio Cortes, a successful tobacco businessman. Despite the recent turmoil, the elections were deemed both free and fair although many argued vote buying had occurred. Cortes took power promising to reinvigorate Paraguay’s economy knowing that he had but five years to accomplish his goal as the constitution allows just one five year term.
Come 2016, the Paraguayan legislature denied a proposed change to the constitution that would allow for a sitting President to run for a second five-year term. However, former President Lugo and sitting President Cortes formed an alliance that sought to change the law, citing it as obsolete, and proposed an amendment be considered once again, illegally so…all while Congress itself was surrounded by Paraguayan military troops. Not only was the Congress forced to convene in a small room, not even the Senate floor, to consider an illegal amendment yet again, but they were forced to due so while surrounded by the military.
The result of the illegal amendment passing led Paraguayans to protest in the street, eventually setting the Congress on fire. The police and military responded violently, killing one and arresting over two hundred.
Does it matter?
There is particular reason as to why the 1992 constitution allowed for only one term: to prevent a single individual from wielding too much power. President Cortes’s illegal political maneuvering, supported by the military, serves as a terrible harbinger for the illiberal democracy to come in the failing state of Paraguay. Not honoring the constitution and using force to make changes that benefit the ruling party of over 60 of the past 70 years is undoubtedly bad for democracy.
Many Latin democracies have changed their constitutions to allow for more than a single term as the continent has previously been famous for strict one-term presidencies. Javier Corrales argues that as long as this process “involves negotiations with groups across the political spectrum” that this may actually strengthen a democracy as checks and balances and the democratic institutions in place are put to the test. However, Corrales is quick to point out that when such aforementioned changes are “imposed from above,” which clearly happens to be the case in Paraguay, then such maneuvering may be extremely harmful to democratic institutions as most commonly these actions are coupled with the president co-opting legislators, the courts, and the media.
Cortes changed the name of the game when he initially tried to update the constitution to his advantage. Rather than waiting a full year before re-introducing the same legislation, he simply saw to the law being changed to allow a second hearing. Such actions as this are eerily similar to political maneuvers executed by Viktor Orban in Hungary who, ostensibly, under the guise of democracy, uses democratic institutions to improve the country when in reality simply reveals his authoritarian-like tendencies as he seeks to consolidate power for himself.
Having said this, it is important to note that this is merely democratic backsliding and not some sort of end the world, doom’s day terror. In her article entitled On Democratic Backsliding, Nancy Bermeo argues that such “coups” such as this, which she labels as an “executive coup,” is a form of “democratic backsliding that [is] legitimated through the very institutions that democracy promoters have prioritized.” Bermeo clearly remains an optimist as she believes that such backsliding is far less dangerous than previous undemocratic actions taken by state actors.
In light of all the violence, it is imperative that Paraguayans not resort to violence as they initially have. Corte’s illegal measures have not yet been finalized and are supposed to face a national vote if the bill were to pass the Senate. Erica Chenoweth has argued “historically speaking, nonviolent struggle is a more effective technique than violent struggle.” It would not be a bad idea for Paraguayans to heed this advice in their attempt to defend their country’s young constitution, for violent actions mixed with non-violent actions “rarely leads to change.” Paraguay clearly has a citizenry that remains willing to defend their constitution; applying peaceful pressure on the President will hopefully facilitate a conversation in which all democratic norms are respected, here and forever.
A coup has been carried out: Paraguay’s congress set alight after vote to let president run again. The Guardian. 1 April 2017.
A Row over Re-election in Paraguay. The Economist. 6 April 2017.
Bermeo, Nancy. On Democratic Backsliding. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Chenoweth, Erica. People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work? 21 Nov 2016. The Washington Post.
Corrales, Javier and Penfold, Michael. Manipulating Term Limits in Latin America. Journal of Democracy. Oct 2014.
Desantis, Daniela. Protester dies, minister sacked after Paraguay re-election vote. Reuters. 1 April 2017.
Lane, Kim. European Forum Threats to Democracy in Eastern Europe. Princeton University, 2016.
Paraguay: President Tries to Force Re-election, Troops Surround Congress. Freedom House. 29 March 2017.