Almost Free, Almost Fair: Paraguay's Ambiguous Elections

September 25, 2007

How much legitimacy should we attribute to a game that takes place on a playing field with a 60 degree tilt? And how much congratulation is due to a regime that demonstrates its willingness to accept victory-but not defeat-in an election?

Some 300 official observers and a swarm of media people descended on the scene of Paraguay's presidential elections this May. The intensity of international interest derived from the prospect that after almost a half century of military dictatorship, Paraguayans might at last be able to participate in open and honest elections. In the end, most observers, including the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) team on which I served, accepted the government's finding that the ruling Colorado Party candidate had garnered the most votes. This was, however, far from the whole story and far from a finding that the election represented a breakthrough to democracy.

A more serious assessment of the process and the validity of its outcome must take into account the undemocratic character of the macropolitical process-what observers from the World Council of Churches referred to as "fraude ambiental," or an environment of fraud. In other words, how much legitimacy should we attribute to a game that takes place on a playing field with a 60 degree tilt? And how much congratulation is due a regime that demonstrates its willingness to accept victory-but not defeat-in an election?

The ruling triad of military, bureaucracy and official party, popularly known as the Colorados, has control of most of the money, all of the guns, and all of the electoral machinery. Over the past century, the Colorados have built a patronage system stretching into every hamlet, wherein the appeal of carrots has been reinforced by the omnipresence of sticks. Yet Paraguay has come a long way since the often ghoulish 35-year rule of General Alfredo Stroessner was ended by a coup d'6tat in 1989. The coup, led by General Andr6s Rodriguez, was motivated by palace intrigue and intramilitary rivalries, but a new generation of democratic activists in the universities, professions, unions, churches and non-governmental organizations took advantage of the incident to force a democratic opening. Gradually, the freedoms of expression and assembly came to be generally respected.

The election immediately following the coup, which confirmed Rodriguez in the presidency, was scarcely a model one, though few doubted that the coup had earned Rodriguez great popularity. Municipal elections in 1991-the first in the country's history- gauged the potential of the newly mobilized democratic opposition. A coalition known as Asunci6n Para Todos (Asunci6n For All) swept the capital while the Liberals, the traditional opposition to the Colorado Party, carried the second largest city and more than 30 other municipalities.

A new constitution was promulgated in 1992. Though drawn up by a Colorado-dominated assembly, it was far more democratic than the previous document. As the 1993 elections approached, the Liberals, subject in the past to co-optation and schism, were more united under the leadership of Domingo Laino. Laino's dogged opposition to Stroessner through the years had led to his imprisonment, torture and exile, and had earned him widespread respect. While the Liberals marshalled their traditional following in the rural areas, new smaller parties, including the Febreristas and the Christian Democrats, joined forces with newly mobilized groups, such as those who had formed the winning coalition in Asuncion, to form a new party, Encuentro Nacional (National Convergence). Encuentro's following is somewhat younger, more urban and more Catholic than Liberal Party supporters, but the platforms of the two parties revealed no major differences. Both paid homage to free enterprise, and stressed civilian control of the military and the elimination of corruption. With the elections around the corner, Encuentro's charismatic presidential candidate, Guillermo Caballero Vargas, enjoyed the lead in most public opinion polls, including some commissioned by the Colorado Party itself.

Meanwhile, a schism had developed within the Colorado Party between loyalists from the Stroessner and Rodriguez camps. Pre-election chicanery included a blatantly rigged primary that threw the nomination to the Rodriguista candidate, Juan Carlos Wasmosy. A multimillionaire, Wasmosy had made his money the old-fashioned way-on government contracts, in this case for the construction of Paraguay's Itaipu, the world's largest u dam.

The environment of  fraud leading up to election day was multi-faceted. Military and party leaders made public statements declaring that they would continue their 'co-government' regardless of the outcome of the elections. Government officials were pressured to mobilize their employees in support of Colorado candidates; this pressure grew more intense as opinion polls showed opposition candidates in the lead. And the Colorado Party withheld or belatedly delivered to opposition parties voter-registration lists and information on the location of precincts and polling places.

Given this general climate, opposition party pollwatchers were not unduly surprised to find on election day that registration lists had been tampered with. They also observed a pattern of urnas con patas (ballot boxes with feet), or voting precincts that were not where-they were supposed to be. Having already traveled a considerable distance to the village or town where they last voted, prospective voters were told that they were registered in some other town.

The most dramatic irregularities on election day itself were a grenade and machine-gun attack on the only opposition television station, and the closing of national borders by the military, so that Paraguayan citizens working in Argentina and Brazil were vented from returning to vote. Even at the airport in Asuncion, foreigners were admitted on election day while citizens found their entry blocked until after the polls closed. By comparison, most other election-day infractions seemed minor, though the litany was long, constituting a comprehensive course on election chicanery. Commonly heard complaints against the ruling party included the purchase of identification cards; the over-representation of Colorado Party members as precinct officials and pollwatchers; instruction of vot- ers in booths; misuse or absence of indelible ink; detention of trucks or buses carrying opposition voters; and-particularly in outlying areas outright intimidation of opposition pollwatchers and voters.

A radio and television cadena, or hook-up, had been established to keep the coun- try informed of the progress of election-day activities. Long before polls closed, the cadena began to issue preliminary election results, based on rather casual exit-polling ballero Vargas' Encuentro procedures. Although Paraguayan law forbids the release of the standing of individual parties in exit polls, the cadena's broad hints had the effect of skirting that prohibition. The moment polls closed, at five o'clock, those totals were given with party labels. That is, before the formal vote count had even begun, the cadena announced that the Colorado Party had won the election. On the strength of that announcement (by a media personality beholden to the government), Colorado candidate Wasmosy declared victory and party militants began a raucous celebration, setting off fireworks, honking horns as they paraded their cars through the streets of the capital, and in some cases, firing guns.

More ominous, however, was the interruption of communications between the central offices of the principal independent election-monitoring organization, Saki, and the organization's field operators in the early afternoon of election day. Saki (Guarani for transparency, or, with respect to elections, openness or cleanliness) is an umbrella organization established by a number of non-governmental organizations. With financial support from public and private sources at home and abroad, Saki had helped with voter education and was conducting a parallel vote count. The seven telephone lines which Saki volunteers at each  precinct were supposed to use to call in their own calculations were cut from about 2 p.m. on election day until about 2 a.m. on the following day. The government's explanation, echoing that of the state telephone company, was that there were technical difficulties. But when President Jimmy Carter-in the country as an election monitor-complained directly to General Rodriguez, the company managed to restore service for some 10 minutes, after which it was cut again. The Carter group concluded that the interruption could only have been intentional.

In the meantime, police surrounded polling stations in many locations. Saki workers, who-by prior agreement with election officials-were designat- ed to deliver the parallel tally, were prevented from entering or leaving those stations. In other places, Saki volun- teers were physically abused. And in perhaps the most extreme example of obstruc- tion, a vehicle carrying Saki workers was forced off the road and overturned.

On the evening of the day following the election, Sakn nevertheless presented its findings to that point. As it turned out, Saki's figures differed only slightly from the unofficial count of the Central Electoral Commission (JEC)-a count which reflected totals called in by the principal officers of each voting precinct. By the second day after the election, however, people were complaining about actas oficiales (voting records) that had arrived at JEC headquarters unsealed or unsigned, or that had been lost or damaged.

Provisional results released by the electoral commission a week after election day gave 40% of the popular vote to Colorado candidate Wasmosy, versus 32% for Laino, the Liberal candidate, and 24% for Encuentro's Caballero Vargas. While the Colorado victory in the presidential election was indisputable, vote tampering threatened the majorities registered by the opposition parties in both houses of Congress in unofficial early computations. As the official count dragged on, and as observer and media attention turned elsewhere, the opposition's initial four-seat advantage in the lower house gradually eroded, and , o the Colorado Party began to claim a two-seat majority.

The opposition was seemingly left without recourse, because any challenge to the findings of the Colorado controlled electoral commission would have to be resolved by the Colorado controlled Congress. By June 2, however, when the Congress declared final electoral results, the opposition's five-seat margin in the Senate held-with 25 senators from the opposition and 20 from the Colorado Party-and its majority in the lower house had been restored-with 42 opposition deputies and 38 from the Colorado Party. The turnabout suggests that the opposition parties' threats to boycott the Congress proved more persuasive in the end than the ballots.

A number of hard lessons can be culled from Paraguay's 1993 elections. Opposition forces learned that without a provision for a run-off election, only a united opposition stands a reasonable chance of prevailing over an entrenched authoritarian government. Moreover, it became clear that while, public-opinion polling may serve as a hedge against governmental fraud and abuse, it may also become a tool for those who would abuse their power. The Paraguayan case shows how readily exit polling and premature projection of results, especially in conjunction with convenient communications failures, can be used to preempt an actual vote count and create a sense of fait accompli. And finally, the Paraguayan experience illustrates that election observers should be particularly attuned to the more or less invisible misuses of incumbency, particu- larly the control of electoral procedures, including computation of ballots and resolution of disputes, by a ruling party seeking to perpetuate its rule.

The Paraguayan elections exemplify the myriad ways in which the scales can be unfairly tipped in apparently free and fair elections. Latin Americans often speak of dictablanda (soft dictatorship) or democradura (hard democracy). Implicit in these terms is the acknowledgment that most elections and most governments fall somewhere on a continuum between fully democratic and utterly undemocratic. Paraguay is no exception to this rule.


Read the rest of NACLA's Sept/Oct 1993 issue: "Peril And Promise: The New Democracy in Latin America."

Tags: Paraguay, democratization, election, fraud, Colorados

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