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Impeachment of Paraguayan President Sparks Institutional Crisis

ASUNCION, Jun 23 2012 (IPS) - The Paraguayan Congress removed President Fernando Lugo from office Friday in an impeachment trial that lasted only a few hours.

The move, formally based on the constitution, triggered an institutional crisis for the fragile democracy in this South American country, and has been rejected by the rest of Latin America.

Lugo accepted the summary decision, which cannot be appealed, although he likened it to a coup and said the law had been “twisted.”

Vice President Federico Franco will complete Lugo’s term, which ends in August 2013.

Calls from the rest of the region, from Washington to Buenos Aires, for the proceedings to be carried out with guarantees for due process, fell on deaf ears. Nor was a mission of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) foreign ministers, who arrived Thursday, successful in mediating the crisis.

While thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Congress to protest the impeachment of Lugo, a former Catholic bishop considered a moderate leftist, UNASUR studied the possibility of refusing to recognise the Franco administration, and members of the mission described the impeachment as a coup.

Latin America is thus facing a new institutional crisis, after the June 2009 coup in Honduras, where then President Manuel Zelaya was ousted and flown out of the country in a military coup backed by Congress.

After accepting the decision, Lugo said in a speech that “Today it was not Fernando Lugo who was removed from power; it was Paraguayan history, Paraguayan democracy that have been deeply hurt.”

When he took office in August 2008, the man who was known as “the bishop of the poor” put an end to 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party and launched a process of social inclusion, in one of the most unequal countries of the world.

“Fernando Lugo does not answer to the political classes, or to the mafia or the drug traffickers,” he said.

The lower house of Congress voted Thursday to impeach him, and in the Senate vote on Friday, 39 senators voted to remove him, four opposed the move, and two were absent.

Franco of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), one of Paraguay’s traditional parties, immediately replaced Lugo, who was elected in April 2008 with the backing of an alliance of the PLRA and left-wing political movements.

This week the PLRA suddenly withdrew its support from Lugo, and threw its backing behind the majority coalition in Congress led by the Colorado Party and including two smaller parties, UNACE and Patria Querida, to impeach the president.

”Today in Paraguay, through a constitutional mechanism, the parties are alternating in power,” Franco said, after promising that all international laws and treaties would be respected by the new government.

He announced measures in favour of land reform, referring to the immediate cause of the impeachment, which was the bloody eviction of landless small farmers a week ago who were occupying part of an estate in the northeastern province of Canindeyu.

Eleven peasants and six police were killed in the clash, the latest episode of violence in the context of a long-running problem of land tenure in a country where 85 percent of all farmland is owned by just two percent of the population.

Franco also promised to hand over power on Aug. 15, 2013 to the winner of the April 2013 elections.

Franco was one of the political leaders who met with the mission of foreign ministers sent by UNASUR ahead of the impeachment trial.

The bloc’s secretary general, Ali Rodríquez, said Friday before the Senate vote that the bloc feared bloodshed if Lugo were impeached.

In a statement, the UNASUR mission said it “had not received a satisfactory response” with respect to the preservation of democratic procedures in the impeachment trial.

Rodríguez had stated that the group was pessimistic regarding the success of its mediation efforts because “little can be done about a decision that has already been reached ahead of time.”

UNASUR warned that the impeachment could violate the democracy clauses of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc – to which Paraguay belongs, along with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay – the 12-member UNASUR, and other Latin American organisations.

Rodríguez told the Telesur TV station that one of the mission’s aims was to help prevent violence from breaking out when the Senate handed down its decision.

The UNASUR’s democratic clause specifies measures to be taken against countries where the political process is not respected, including the possible suspension or expulsion from the bloc.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called the impeachment trial a coup – a view shared by the foreign ministers of other UNASUR countries, and by Lugo himself.

Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General Miguel Insulza expressed deep concern over the crisis in Paraguay and the apparent lack of guarantees of due process for Lugo.

Lugo’s lawyers, who were given just two hours for their defence, were refused more time to prepare. Lugo did not attend the Senate impeachment trial.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro, another member of the UNASUR mission, warned that the bloc was about to take measures “that will shake this country,” and wondered why the country’s political authorities did not wait for Lugo to hand power over to his elected successor in August 2013.

He did not elaborate on the measures that could be taken.

Many businesses and some schools in the capital closed Friday, and hospitals got extra beds ready in case violence broke out.

After the vote in the Senate, disturbances took place outside Congress, where the security forces broke up demonstrations by Lugo supporters.

Analyst Alfredo Boccia said the situation obviously directly benefited Franco, but hurt the country because it created a situation of profound uncertainty.

“It will not be easy for Franco to govern, because he will not have legitimacy,” Boccia told IPS.

He cited the economic impact of the coup in Honduras. “When they removed Zelaya in a very similar way, the economy was seriously hurt. And the same thing could happen in Paraguay,” he said.

Colorado Party analyst Bernardino Cano told IPS that Lugo’s removal was the product of an agreement between the two traditional parties, which are long-time rivals: the PLRA and the Colorado Party.

“What we hope now is that Franco will be sensible enough to understand that he is an acting president,” he said.

* With additional reporting by Estrella Gutiérrez.

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