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Dispute over presidential reelection triggers political crisis
Latinamerica Press
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Violent protests to oppose constitutional reform project to allow consecutive or alternate presidential reelection approved by a group of senators.

The attempt by senators of the ruling Partido Colorado and the leftist Frente Guasú to amend the constitution in order to allow presidential reelections, led to deadly protests and the setting fire of the National Congress in Asunción.

The Parliament had rejected a similar proposal in August 2016. On Mar. 28, the Senate debated the initiative presented by the Executive Branch to amend the Constitution, something that was harshly criticized by the opposition parties. Short of reaching an agreement, a last minute closed-door session was called with the participation of 25 of the 45 senators and without the participation of the Senate President Roberto Acevedo.

Although the regulation of Congress establishes that the issue cannot be debated again after a one year period, pro-government and Frente Guasú legislators modified it at that meeting, allowing them to present the amendment bill. On Mar. 31, the 25 legislators held a new irregular session during which the constitutional amendment bill, which would make it possible for presidents and vice-presidents to run for a new term, be it for consecutive or alternate terms, was approved.

The constitutional reform is yet to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies, in which the Partido Colorado holds a majority, but opposition legislators denounced an institutional breakdown and the protests were quick to follow.

One thousand protesters entered the Congress building on Apr. 1, inflicting significant damage and setting fire to the main room. The police repression that followed left at least one person dead, hundreds injured and 200 people arrested.

Acevedo, of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA) and in opposition to the amendment, called on President Horacio Cartes — whose five year term ends in August 2018 — to remove the initiative, while the president issued a statement in which he called on the population to “remain calm and not let yourselves be misled by those who for some months now have been announcing violent acts and bloodshed. The setting fire of the Congress shows that a group of Paraguayans embedded in politics and in mass communication media will stop at nothing to reach their objective of destroying democracy.”

The Constitution of 1992 bans indefinite reelections, something that was part of the previous Magna Carta of 1967. The current constitutional text states that “the President and Vice-President will serve five-year terms that cannot be extended, to begin on August 12 following the elections. They may not be reelected under any circumstance.”

Divided parties
President Cartes called for a round table meeting on Apr. 5 with sectors of the opposition, to be mediated by the Archbishop of Asuncion, Monsignor Edmundo Valenzuela. However, faced with the unwillingness to remove the amendment project, Acevedo left the meeting. The only agreement that has been reached is that the Chamber of Deputies will not put to debate the constitutional amendment for as long as this negotiating body lasts.

The presidential reelection issue has provoked divisions in the Partido Colorado, the PLRA and the Frente Guasú, which has five seating senators, including former President Fernando Lugo, who in 2008, as the leader of the Patriotic Alliance for Change that included the PLRA, put an end to the 61 years in power of the Partido Colorado. Lugo was removed from office on June 22, 2012 by an “express coup” led by the parliamentary right wing, including the Partido Colorado and the PLRA, less than 14 months from ending his term.

Hugo Richer, Senator for the Frente Guasú, said that his organization wants “absolutely nothing” with the Partido Colorado, except the approval of the constitutional amendment that would allow Lugo to run in next year’s election.

Meanwhile, a sector of the PLRA considered that the amendment of the congressional regulation to permit reelection is a “very hard blow.”

“Cartes said he would not seek reelection and now he is doing quite the opposite. This is how legal uncertainty is transmitted to all the sectors, especially to the business sector,” said PLRA Senator Luis Alberto Wagner.

Amerigo Incalcaterra, representative for South America of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, demanded an investigation take place on the death of Rodrigo Quintana, a 25 year old opposition member, as a consequence of a rubber bullet fired by the police when they broke into the office of the PLRA where some of its members had gathered.

Police Commissioner Tomás Paredes Palma said in a radio interview that “we did not use any weapons, we only arrested some people, took them to the police investigation headquarters.” Cartes decided to remove Interior Minister Miguel Tadeo Rojas and the Commander of the National Police Críspulo Sotelo from their posts, “considering the latest events in the aspect of security and in light of the direct order to take extreme care to prevent the use of excessive force by the police.” —Latinamerica Press.

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