Paraguay in flames: protests rage as president seeks to remove term limits

Police on horseback ride past a statue of a cannon during a protest against a possible change in law to allow for presidential re-election in front of the Congress building in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno - RTX33LCU
Police on horseback ride past a statue of a cannon during a protest against a possible change in law to allow for presidential re-election in front of the Congress building in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno - RTX33LCU

Senators roughed up by police. The Paraguayan Congress in flames. Bands of angry protesters roaming the streets of Asunción. Hundreds arrested. One man dead.

This was the scene in Paraguay over the last ten days or so, where the question of whether the country should allow its presidents to be reelected has prompted a deep national political crisis.

Images of the Congress set alight on March 31, which dominated international headlines, were undoubtedly the best visual synthesis of a crisis that has been brewing here for months.

No thanks, Mr. President

Tensions reached their apex in late March when, after a lengthy negotiation, Paraguay’s parliament took a key step towards allowing President Horacio Cartes to seek reelection next year.

This move, which would benefit not only Cartes but also several other former presidents who are contemplating running again in 2018, is deeply unpopular among Paraguayans, and stridently opposed by some factions within the government. But a constitutional amendment enabling reelection has majority support in the Senate.

To remove procedural stumbling blocks that were hindering progress, members of the bipartisan alliance supporting Cartes, a former tobacco magnate, attempted to modify the Senate’s in-house rules on March 27. Senate leader Roberto Acevedo refused their request to call an extraordinary session the following day.

On Tuesday March 28, a 25-senator majority, acting with the support of Deputy Senate Leader Julio César Velázquez, voted during a tumultuous and irregular closed-door session to accept the changes to the in-house regulations that would allow a constitutional amendment enabling Cartes’ reelection bid to move forward.

With the articles thus modified, the group then convened another special Senate session and, again acting unilaterally with support of the deputy leader, approved the draft amendment to enable the president to extend his term. Meanwhile, in the Senate’s regular plenary session, 18 senators headed by the Senate leader were unaware of the closed-door decision.

The amendment was officially presented for resolution to the House of Representatives on Friday March 31, as the 25-senator faction sought to push confirmation of their bill through the House. With a clear majority in this chamber, a vote was likely to end in approval.

Attempted coup?

But opposing forces quickly mobilised. Members of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, headed by party leader Efraín Alegre, and several dozen other senior officials headed towards the chamber, declaring that the unusual procedure would amount to a coup.

Before they could reach the doors of Congress, the group was brutally suppressed by police. Alegre and several other senators were left bloodied by rubber bullets.

Hundreds of angry demonstrators soon gathered in front of the building, consisting of young Radical Liberals and other political forces that consider the president’s reelection bid unconstitutional. They forced their way through the protective police cordon surrounding the building and entered Congress, setting fire to some facilities and inflicting other significant damage.

When driven out of the building by police, demonstrators broke into small groups and scattered throughout the nation’s capital, where they defaced buildings, looted stores, set cars alight and clashed with police.

Just after midnight on April 1, a police squad broke into the Radical Liberal party headquarters, in the heart of the nation’s capital, claiming they had been attacked from the premises. Police forced their way in without a warrant, opening fire as they entered and arresting more than a hundred people.

A growing sense of citizenship

The days since have seen continuing anti-reelection demonstrations across the country, most of them now peaceful. Thousands of demonstrators, primarily young people, are calling for the House to reject the Senate’s draft amendment.

In response to these events, President Cartes has called for nationwide dialogue, summoning leaders from all parties and inter-party factions to a round table discussion.

The April 5 meeting had few concrete outcomes although publicly both sides – some of whom still sported black eyes from recent incidents – declared it “a success”. Provisional agreements included a determination that the House of Representatives would not discuss the draft amendment while the question of whether the Senate’s procedure was valid remains open.

In a society where dialogue is not a resource frequently used in the political arena, this is no doubt an achievement. But the tenuous rapprochement has done little to ease tensions around the question of presidential reelection in Paraguay. Many powerful people, including the Senate president, remain firmly against a constitutional amendment.

As the smoke clears from a week of destructive protests in Asunción, two facts are increasingly conspicuous: supporters of presidential reelection have not given up, but neither have the people of Paraguay. A spirit of citizenship is growing in the country, and ongoing marches are a clear sign that residents have had more than enough of political brinkmanship.

Ignacio González Bozzolasco, Professor of Comparative Politics, Universidad Católica de Asunción

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