PARAGUAY: ‘Very tough years are ahead for civil society that promotes human rights’

MartaFerraraCIVICUS discusses Paraguay’s recent general election with Marta Ferrara, executive director of Seeds for Democracy (Semillas para la Democracia).

Founded in 2006, Seeds for Democracy is a civil society organisation (CSO) whose main objective is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of democracy in Paraguay by promoting citizen participation, social equity and accountable governance.

What are Paraguay’s main challenges, and to what extent could the results of the recent election contribute to solving them?

Paraguay’s main problems are fundamentally economic, stemming from deep inequality. In recent years, Paraguay has had very good macroeconomic indicators, with high growth, but has remained very unequal, with high unemployment, large numbers of people in informal work and lack of access to health, education and opportunities. It is a country run by immensely wealthy cattle-ranching and agro-exporting elites who rule for their own benefit and to the detriment of a terribly unequal society. I believe this is the central characteristic of Paraguayan society and economy. It is a deep, structural problem, and this election has done nothing to solve it. The same people as always have won: the same sectors that have kept the country in this situation for more than 70 years.

At stake in this election was the possibility of alternation in power. However, that would not necessarily have meant radical change, because the presidential candidate of Concertación, the opposition coalition, was also a conservative, albeit from the Liberal Party. His running mate was a woman, but he still represented a conservative sector of society. These were not disruptive candidacies representing a real change in the way politics is conducted, in the way power is exercised, in terms of public policies or representing different social sectors.

How do you explain the comfortable win for the Colorado Party, despite the incumbent president’s very low approval rating?

The results can be explained to a large extent by the effects, which we already anticipated, of the system of unblocked lists with preferential voting in the context of a divided opposition.

A couple of years ago there was an electoral reform that replaced the closed and blocked party lists with unblocked lists with preferential voting. In these, the voter can select a candidate within the list of their choice, in order to vote for both a party and a candidate; then, according to the number of votes obtained by each candidate and their list, seats are distributed by the D’Hont system.

This system was introduced in the last municipal elections and we already knew that it would have some negative effects. A big problem with unblocked lists is that generally the candidate with the most money is the one who gets ahead. They also cause strong competition of all against all within parties.

In addition, the old system was replaced by electronic ballot boxes without sufficient training, meaning that people were not well prepared to use the new system. This allowed the spread of so-called ‘assisted voting’, which is illegal, and which basically consists of having people at polling stations interfering with voting with the excuse of helping voters use the electronic system.

All this benefited the Colorado Party, which has been at the helm of the state for a long time and is therefore the one with the most resources, and which has sufficient internal diversity to be able to provide replacement options for those who are dissatisfied with their government they lead.

There were, however, some small improvements in women’s representation. For the first time two women have been elected governors and there are more women than before in both houses of Congress.

But with the opposition divided, the Colorado Party won by the widest margin in Paraguay’s democratic history. In addition to winning the presidency, it won control of both houses of Congress and 15 of 17 governorships.

The other defining feature of this election was the emergence of a third opposition political grouping with a populist-authoritarian and messianic style. Led by Paraguayo Cubas, it represents so-called ‘angry voters’, those dissatisfied with traditional parties and the way politics has been conducted for decades. This candidacy did not take votes away from the government but from the opposition, and unexpectedly came in a close third place, with more than 20 per cent.

What is the basis for the allegations of fraud voiced by protesters?

The followers of Paraguayo Cubas, joined by people from practically all sectors of the opposition, many of them young people disaffected with politics, have taken to the streets en masse across the country to denounce fraud, despite the fact that their candidate got a very good vote, which they did not expect. The fact that an anti-establishment group is mobilising protests on a scale not seen in a long time represents a major challenge for the future of democracy in Paraguay.

This was a relatively peaceful election in which there was virtually no violence. What there was plenty of was disinformation, hate speech and social media attacks throughout the campaign. These aggressions strongly affected CSOs, including our own, Seeds for Democracy, and came mostly from the ruling party and the party and supporters of Paraguayo Cubas, although Concertación also launched similar attacks against its political opponents.

What role did civil society play during the election?

Civil society played a relatively important role, despite the restrictions it has faced. The Electoral Court initially did not authorise civil society election observation and instead issued a rather restrictive regulation. It finally accepted that the Sakã Consortium, a civil society coalition, would carry out observation and a parallel count, but with very many restrictions.

Seeds for Democracy has been actively involved in denouncing the problems of political financing, an issue we have succeeded in placing on the agenda. The other major problem in Paraguay, along with enormous inequality, is corruption. Lack of control over money in politics has brought groups linked to organised crime to power, both in Congress and in governors’ offices.

We will soon be working on political finance control. In Paraguay, campaign spending is controlled after elections. A month later, when the parties submit their statements, we begin to monitor them through the Electoral Court’s Citizen Observatory of Political Financing, cross-checking data on public contracts with the sworn statements published on public agencies’ websites. Paraguay’s freedom of information legislation is quite good and enables us to do this work.

How do you see the future of democracy in Paraguay?

In the medium to long term I see a very difficult situation. There are many things to be resolved in order to improve the quality of democracy. The emerging political group is violent, anti-rights, fundamentalist and messianic. Its inspiration is the popular authoritarian president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, and his way of ruling, so I think we are in for some very tough years ahead.

The section of the Colorado Party that won the election is one whose leaders attack civil society. They are anti-rights: they define themselves as ‘pro-life’, they are against equal marriage and sexual and reproductive rights and they attack all issues related to gender rights. That’s why I think civil society is in for a very tough few years. The various segments of civil society, especially those working on rights issues, are going to have to make big efforts to join together and undertake collective action.

At the moment, some organisations have some funding from international cooperation sources, and we hope that this support will increase and strengthen so that we can work together to face all these challenges. It will be a constant struggle, all the more difficult because we have already seen attacks against freedom of expression and press freedom.

I do not expect much in the coming months. For the time being, we must stay vigilant to understand which way things are going. But what is certain is that very tough years are ahead for CSOs that promote human rights.

Civic space in Paraguay is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Seeds for Democracy through their website or Facebook page, and follow @semillaspy on Twitter.



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