Paraguay fears dictatorship as president moves to amend constitution

After months of behind-the-scenes preparations, Paraguay’s president, Horacio Cartes, has moved to amend the constitution to allow him to be re-elected in 2018, prompting warnings that the country where Alfredo Stroessner ruled for more than 30 years is once again sliding towards dictatorship.

Members of the governing rightwing Colorado party – which has held power for all but four of the past 70 years – joined with several opposition legislators to propose changes to the senate’s procedural rules, a precursor to introducing a re-election bill after a similar attempt was narrowly defeated in August.

“Paraguayans have to go out on to the streets to defend democracy, which is under attack,” Rafael Filizzola, a senator with the leftwing Frente Guasu coalition, told reporters.

On Tuesday, riot police and elite troops sealed off the small South American country’s congress. Inside, legislators traded punches and fierce insults, and – after the speaker of the house delayed a vote until Thursday – a pro-Cartes senator seized a microphone, proclaimed himself senate president, and steam-rolled through the changes with a show of hands. A vote on re-election itself is expected to be passed in the coming days.

Opposition parties and dissident Colorados have promised to resist moves towards re-election, decrying a “coup d’etat” and the imposition of a “dictatorship”. Polls suggest that nearly 80% of Paraguayans oppose re-election via constitutional amendment, although some favour a more gradual constitutional reform that would eventually allow re-election.

Cartes, a tobacco magnate, is reportedly monitoring events closely from the presidential palace. His supporters want him to run again in 2018 in order, they claim, to continue his pro-business reforms.

Opposition politicians allege that senators have been bribed IGNORE INTO supporting the amendment, and say that the Colorado Party’s huge resources could easily bankroll a yes vote.

The crisis risks further damage to Paraguay’s democracy following the 2012 impeachment of the leftwing former president Fernando Lugo. Lugo was absent on Tuesday, but most of his party’s senators voted in favour of the changes. The 65-year-old former bishop appears to be gambling on a constitutional amendment working in his favour: polls suggest that he would win more than half the vote were he able to run again in 2018.

“I think this country deserves politicians who genuinely respect the constitution,” said Juan Andrés del Puerto, a medical student, at a protest on Tuesday. Naomi Muñoz, a saleswoman, lamented the “prostitution” of Paraguayan politics. “The truth is that we’re already practically in a dictatorship,” she said.

Ignacio González Bozzolasco of Asunción’s Universidad Católica sounded a note of caution, saying that the rhetoric around re-election was “very extreme”. Several governments have mooted constitutional change to try to build a lasting political programme, he said. “Whether re-election happens or doesn’t happen, it’s not a solution to the problem,” he said.

His sentiment was echoed by Pedro Duarte, a street vendor from the Chacarita slum. “They’re trying to let Cartes be president again, and he’s not a good president,” he said. “He only wants to side with the rich and no one else. And there are more and more poor people. I say there should be another president.”