Paraguay's capital city of Asunción was on 21-22 June 2012 witness to rare constitutional and political drama. First, the 80-member lower house of Paraguay's congress initiated a move to impeach President Fernando Lugo, and voted by a 76-1 majority to support it; then the next day, in a lightning session lasting less than two hours, the 45-member upper house (senate) concluded the process by a vote of 39-4.
Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, had been elected Paraguay's president in April 2008 on a platform of social change. The vote ended sixty-one years of uninterrupted rule by the Colorado Party, much of it under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89). Moreover, it was the first time since 1887 - when Paraguay's two traditional parties, the Colorados and the Liberals, were created - that a political party had relinquished power to another through the ballot-box rather than through a military coup (see "Paraguay: Fernando Lugo vs the Colorado machine", 28 February 2008).
Lugo's victory was aided both by his alliance with the Liberal Party and a split inside the Colorados. But the parallel legislative elections in 2008 left both houses of congress dominated by the traditional parties, with minimal representation for Lugo's own left-wing supporters (six out of eighty seats in the lower house, and three of forty-five seats in the senate) (see "Paraguay's historic election", 22 April 2008)
Lugo's overthrow, and the appointment as his successor of the vice-president (and Liberal) Federico Franco, have now altered the political landscape in advance of the scheduled presidential and legislative elections in April 2013. The extraordinary events of 21-22 June, however, involve more than manoeuvring for power in Asunción. In broad terms, they can be seen as the political expression of economic changes that have been occurring in Paraguay since 2008. Most important is theat way that entrenched corruption and growing inequality in access to land, reinforced by the rapid expansion of commercial agriculture (especially soybean production organised by Brazilian immigrants), have created contradictions that are having a profound impact on the social and political order.
This article outlines and seeks to explain the main dynamics at work in this epic Paraguayan - and Latin American - story.
During his four years in power, Lugo had gradually disillusioned voters, on two counts: his failure to address the country's pressing problems of land reform and tax reform, and his personal behaviour (he has now admitted to fathering two children before his election while he was serving as a "bishop of the poor", and there are two further paternity-suits in the pipeline). Rhetoric aside, it is hard to see Lugo as part of the "pink tide" of leftist governments in Latin America.
The impeachment proceeding against Lugo was based on five counts of "bad performance" (none of which, however, involved accusations of corruption). The most prominent was his alleged complicity in Paraguay's worst incident of political violence for decades, on 15 June 2012, when six police and eleven civilians were killed in a shoot-out during a police operation to clear landless protesters in the northern department of Canindeyú. The tragedy occurred on a 2,000-hectare property at Campo Morombí, which had been spuriously obtained during the Stroessner era by a businessman and former senator, Blas Riquelme, under the guise of "land reform".
In fact, no evidence at all of Lugo's involvement in the incident was presented at the impeachment trial (for which he was given less than twenty-four hours to prepare, and only two hours to present a defence).