Paraguay’s ruling conservative party was defeated in Mayoral elections in Asunción on Sunday, a result that reflected a recent series of scandals over corruption in the city’s education system.
Liberal Party (PLRA) candidate and former TV presenter Mario Ferreiro won by a margin of 10 percentage points, with 50.99 percent of the vote. His opponent, Arnaldo Samaniego from the governing Colorado party, gained 40.56 percent.
Ferreiro’s victory was an unexpected reversal after 14 years of Colorado control over the capital, and early opinion polls placing his opponent comfortably ahead. He also faced the resistance of the city’s influential Evangelical and Catholic churches, which advised their followers against supporting any of the opposition candidates.
“They are openly in favour of ideologies that attack life, the family, and all our Christian principles,” the Evangelical Church said in a statement, referring to the candidates’ support for abortion and gay marriage.
The Mayoral contest in Asuncion was the key vote as Paraguayans elected 250 Mayors and more than 2500 town councillors across the country. Other noteworthy results included an unprecedented victory for the PLRA (Liberal Party) in Caacupé, a Catholic pilgrimage site and Colorado stronghold for over 60 years.
The PLRA also suffered set-backs, notably in the town of Limpio, where incumbent Ángel Gómez Verlangieri lost after a leaked video showed him having sex with a young council employee in the Mayoral office.
But the result most representative of the mood of the elections occurred in the Asunción satellite town of Lambaré. Until 30 September, Colorado incumbent Roberto Cardenás was confident of securing a third successive term. Then, that morning, a classroom roof collapsed in a Lambaré school, hospitalizing seven primary school students. Public opinion turned against Cardenás, who lost by almost ten percentage points – despite his opponent being under investigation for money laundering.
The roof collapse was seen as symbolic of the widespread misuse and embezzlement of public funds in Paraguay, a consequence of pervasive institutional corruption. Along with a wave of student strikes and protests, the collapse made corruption in the education system a touchstone issue for many voters.
Also in late September, students at Paraguay’s most prestigious university, the UNA, went on strike in protest at corruption in the institution. Their action followed an investigation by the national newspaper Ultima Hora, which revealed that the university was employing several members of the Rector’s family in positions for which they had no relevant qualifications and were receiving vastly inflated salaries. Students, repeatedly told there was no money available to pay for scholarships or key equipment, were furious.
Events took a farcical turn when students occupying the campus discovered two staff members crawling around a classroom in the dark, apparently trying to steal and destroy evidence of malpractice. The Rector’s Head of Human Resources, María del Carmen Martínez, acquired the nickname ‘paper-eater’ after she was found hurriedly swallowing documents before the arrival of the police.
Several arrests have since been made, while the students continue to push for further resignations and convictions.
Concerns over corruption in Paraguay go far beyond the education system. Indeed, the democratic legitimacy of the Colorado government is itself highly questionable. Their election in 2013 was dogged by accusations of vote-buying and intimidation. It followed the controversial impeachment of the previous elected President, Fernando Lugo, in 2012.
Lugo’s victory in 2008 was the first time a party other than the Colorados had taken power in Paraguay for 61 years. But the Senate threw him out four years later, citing as justification a clash between landless farmers and police which left 17 people dead. Neighbouring countries including Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina condemned his removal as a constitutional coup, suspending Paraguay from regional trade bloc Mercosur.
But while their grip on power comes in large part from sources other than the ballot box, the scale of the Colorado Party’s defeat in Asunción nevertheless marks a significant mid-term set-back for President Horacio Cartes. The PLRA and its broad coalition of centre-left parties will be hoping momentum can be sustained until 2018, when the next general election takes place.
Beyond party politics, civil society organisations and those fighting for a more open and functioning democracy will hope these shoots of discontent can be cultivated into a sustained challenge to the country’s deep-rooted culture of clientilism, corruption and narcopolitics.
But pulling up Paraguay’s institutional weaknesses is a process that is likely to take decades. After all, this is a country that Transparency International ranks as the 26th most corrupt in the world – just a few places ahead of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.