December 14, 2017
Friday, April 7, 2017

Paraguay remains on edge over re-election amendment

Government, oppositon fail to come to agreement after one dead in protests

ASUNCION — Incipient political dialogue aimed defusing a tense situation in Paraguay after last week’s initial approval of a constitutional amendment allowing presidential re-election has failed to come to an agreement, although stakeholders have promised that the Lower House of Congress will not go forward with the initiative in the immediate term.

Although a session of the Lower House has been scheduled for next Tuesday, the amendment is not on the agenda at this time. However, the head of the Lower House has noted that it could be added on if there is agreement among lawmakers.

In turn, marches against and in favour of the constitutional amendment have been called for the coming days — ratcheting up political tension after last week’s sudden outburst.

Thousands of protesters gathered outside Paraguay’s Congress on Monday evening in a peaceful demonstration over an unpopular Senate vote for an amendment last week that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election.

Protesters clashed violently with police last Friday, storming and setting fire to the Congress building after a group of senators called a special session behind closed doors, rather than on the Senate floor, to pass the measure.

The 25 senators who voted for the bill, drawn from the ruling Colorado Party (ANR-PC) and the opposition Frente Guasú which is tied to impeached president Fernando Lugo, did so after changing the Senate’s internal rules, as well as failing to recognise Senator Roberto Acevedo (Liberal Party, PLRA) as speaker. Protests later devolved into the fire in Congress and the use of rubber bullets on protesters, including some opposition lawmakers.

Afterwards a man was shot and killed by police who stormed the opposition Liberal Party’s headquarters. Rodrigo Quintana, 25, was killed by a rubber bullet fired by police who entered the headquarters of the Liberal Party, the country’s second-largest, opposition politicians and a federal prosecutor said. As a result, four police officers were fired in addition to Interior Minister Tadeo Rojas and the national police chief, Crispulo Sotelo. An investigation into the death is underway.

A UN official on Tuesday called for an investigation into the killing of a Paraguayan protester during violent demonstrations last week, while President Horacio Cartes cancelled an overseas trip to concentrate on resolving the country’s political crisis.

Amerigo Incalcaterra, Representative for South America of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Paraguayan authorities were “doing what they have to do” after police stormed an opposition party’s headquarters last week and shot dead Quintana.

“We expect the events will be investigated and that those responsible both for the acts of violence and for the death of a Paraguayan citizen will be punished,” Incalcaterra said after meeting with Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Eladio Loizaga in the capital city of Asuncion.

Re-election reform

Supporters of Cartes, a former soft-drink and tobacco businessman, want him to be able to seek a second term in a country that constitutionally forbids re-election after Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year dictatorship fell in 1989.

The Constitution has prohibited re-election — even if non-consecutive — since it was passed in 1992 after a brutal dictatorship fell in 1989. Sensitivities to holding onto power and perceived police aggression persist. The measure to change the Constitution to allow presidential re-election still would have to be approved by the Lower house and via popular referendum. The bill also says that defeated presidential candidates automatically become senators.

Presidential elections are scheduled for 2018, with seemingly both Cartes and Lugo eyeing a run, assuming that the amendment is approved.

Late on Sunday, Cartes called on different political factions to meet and discuss ways to reduce tensions after an appeal from Pope Francis.

The amendment would still have to be approved by the Lower House, where it was expected to have strong support. But the head of the lower house and Cartes ally, Hugo Velázquez, told reporters on Monday the vote would be delayed until the dialogue Cartes requested took place.

False start for dialogue

On Wednesday, Acevedo participated along with various leaders of opposition parities, Cartes, Monsignor Edmundo Valenzuela of the Catholic Church in Paraguay and with Velázquez of the Lower House. Efraín Alegre and Rafael Filizzola, the heads of the PLRA and the Democratic Progressive Party respectively, declined to attend the dialogue as their request to Cartes to have the amendment withdrawn before any dialogue could take place went unheeded.

Acevedo since said that he would not participate in the dialogue because he felt that it was a ploy by those favouring the amendment to win time in the face of their critics.

Velázquez on Wednesday nonetheless made it obvious that there is plenty of distance between the camps when he said “today we had our first meeting and it was always going to be difficult that we agree on all of the issues. We want harmony and peace to return to our citizens. We don’t want any more blood to be shed.” That sentiment seemed to clash with Senator Esperanza Martínez of the Frente Guasú, who said that “the amendment cannot be withdrawn because we already approved it. According to the rules it is now up to the Lower House to consider it.”

Herald staff with AP, Reuters

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