Former bishop Fernando Lugo scores historic win in Paraguay - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

Former bishop Fernando Lugo scores historic win in Paraguay

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Posted: Monday, April 21, 2008 12:19 am | Updated: 9:28 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

ASUNCION, Paraguay - Former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won a historic victory in Paraguay's presidential election Sunday, ending more than six decades of one-party rule with a mandate to help the nation's poor and indigenous.

His rival, Blanca Ovelar, conceded defeat after a closely fought race to lead this poor, agrarian nation where Ovelar's Colorado Party is the only ruling party most people have ever known.

News of the win by the gray-bearded Lugo, dubbed the "bishop of the poor," set off massive parties in cities across Paraguay with horn-honking caravans of cars blaring music. Others stamped on torn-down banners of the Colorado Party, which many Paraguayans blame for decades of corruption by political elites.

The triumph by Lugo's eclectic opposition alliance also marked the latest in a series of electoral wins by leftist, or center-left, leaders in South America.

"You have decided what has to be done in Paraguay. You have decided to be a free Paraguay. Thank you, thank you, all of you!" Lugo, 56, told tens of thousands of supporters in downtown Asuncion, as fireworks burst under a full moon. "Today, we have written a new chapter in our nation's political history."

Journalism student Andrea Ramirez, 19, waved a red-white-and-blue Paraguayan flag at the rally. "I voted for the first time and am very happy. The shameless and cynical ones have lost."

With about 13,000 of 14,000 balloting stations counted, officials said Lugo had 41 percent of the vote, Ovelar had 31 percent and former army chief Lino Oviedo had 22 percent. Minor candidates accounted for the remaining votes.

Ovelar, a former education minister and protege of outgoing President Nicanor Duarte, conceded that she had lost after initially disputing exit poll results. She would have been Paraguay's first female president.

"The outcome is irreversible," Ovelar, 50, said on national television five hours after polls closed following largely peaceful voting. Election officials said Sunday's voting had the highest turnout - about 66 percent - of any presidential election since the end of the 35-year dictatorship of the late Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

Lugo's triumph broke the Colorado Party's legendarily long grip on power, which began in 1947, before even the communist parties in Cuba or China came to power.

In Paraguay's long-volatile politics, Lugo still awaited final official returns confirming his landmark triumph, which would make him he first former Catholic bishop elected as a president.

News broadcasts showed two minor scuffles outside polling places Sunday, but officials said voting was without serious incidents.

The Colorado Party had long stayed in power thanks to an extensive party apparatus and hundreds of thousands of loyal government civil servants.

But eight months ago, Lugo welded leftist unions, Indians and poor farmers into a coalition with Paraguay's main opposition party: the conservative Authentic Radical Party.

Lugo, who often wears sandals and farmers' hats, then launched a charismatic campaign in which he blamed Paraguay's economic woes on decades of corruption by an elite that ruled at the expense of the poor in a country of subsistence farmers.

A bishop since 1994, he resigned the post in December 2006 to sidestep Paraguay's constitutional ban on clergy seeking office. Lugo says he was influenced by the liberation theology frowned upon by the Vatican. But he says he is neither on the left nor the right, but leads a pluralistic coalition.

Recently, left or center-left governments have come to power in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Economist Mark Weisbrot of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research said Lugo's win shows how deep these changes sweeping South America really are.

"If a candidate of the left, clearly identified with the poor, can break the grip of the longest-ruling party in the world - and a right-wing party at that - it shows how much South America has changed and how democracy has taken root," he said.

Lugo has distanced himself from the region's more radical leaders, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

"Chavez is a military man and I have a religious background," Lugo told reporters in Washington last year. "My candidacy has arisen at the request of the people, it was born in a different way than Hugo Chavez's."

Fueling Lugo's campaign was voter disenchantment with 13 percent joblessness in South America's poorest country after Bolivia. Some 43 percent of the 6.5 million Paraguayans live in poverty.

Paraguayans were also voting to seat a 45-member Senate, an 80-member lower House of Deputies and 17 governors.

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