Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Saturday, 19 April 2008 13:00 UK

Final rally for Paraguay hopefuls

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Asuncion

Campaign poster of candidate Fernando Lugo at rally 17 April
Fernando Lugo says he will bring land reform and help the marginalised

The roar of approval at a final election rally in the centre of Asuncion suggests this is a crowd which believes their candidate is within sight of victory in Paraguay's presidential race.

And if that is true, the former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo will have completed a considerable achievement.

For success in Sunday's vote would mean ousting Paraguay's Colorado Party, which has held power here for more than 60 years, a period that spanned the long dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner.

"We want change," Lugo supporter Miriam Gonzales told the BBC News website.

I am not Hugo Chavez, I am Fernando Lugo... I am not Evo Morales, I am not Correa and I am not Fidel
Fernando Lugo

"I was born under the Stroessner regime and today there is so much poverty, so much corruption, that this is the moment for change, to something better in the country.

"Perhaps for our children or our grandchildren, a better country, a more honest country."

Deep poverty

After 12 years in charge of a diocese in one of the poorest parts of the country, Fernando Lugo apparently felt he was getting nowhere. He stepped down from his post and later defied the Vatican to enter politics.

In a country faced with enormous poverty, and where land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population, he wants to see agrarian reform.

He is also calling on Brazil to pay more for the hydro-electric energy it gets from the huge Itaipu dam which lies between the two counties.

In the peace and quiet of his suburban home, Fernando Lugo is keen to dismiss suggestions that he will follow the more controversial style of the Bolivian or Venezuelan leaders.

"I feel at ease. I know what I would like to do and who I am," he told the BBC. " I am not Hugo Chavez, I am Fernando Lugo. I am not Evo Morales. I am not Correa and I am not Fidel.

"I have always said this has to be a Paraguayan process achieved by our own abilities. I believe the process of consolidating democracy here will be different from other countries.

"We want to create an inclusive government which is why the Patriotic Alliance for Change which backs my candidacy was born."

Blanca Ovelar at election rally 16 April
The opposition has not demonstrated in all this time that it has the strength and creativity... that can bring change about
Blanca Ovelar

He says his objectives are clear: "No more exclusion in Paraguay, especially with the forgotten and marginalised sections of our communities."

It appears that after a divisive selection process, which included allegations of fraud, the Colorado or Red Party faces a credible challenge to its hold on power.

Its candidate, former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar, is keen to become the country's first woman president, and says she can not be held accountable for the mistakes of the past, or the legacy of the Stroessner era.

Drifting away

The party's last election rally in Asuncion started out as a lively affair with a sea of red flags, banners, balloons, and even red clothes on display, with music and fireworks to carry the huge crowd along.

Among the banners at the rally were some from public institutions such as the state-owned electricity and phone companies which by law are supposed to stay above party politics.

By the end of the evening some of the party's problems were on display.

The sitting president Nicanor Duarte Frutos, an unpopular figure, gave a long speech in his distinctive guttural style which failed to strike a chord with the audience. Blanca Ovelar also struggled to make an impact, and by the end of her speech some of the crowd had drifted away.

But the Colorado Party permeates every aspect of society here, and has shown in the past it can hold on to power even when in a tight corner. More than 200,000 people who work for the state depend on the party for their jobs.

Supporter of Colorado Party in Paraguay 17 April
The Colorado Party has held on to power for 61 years

"The real change will be a woman president," insists Blanca Ovelar.

" The opposition has not demonstrated in all this time that it has the strength and creativity, and overall the political ability to get together a form of thinking that can bring change about… they don't represent change."

Observers say the deep roots of the organisation will make it hard to shift.

"The Colorado Party is not only a political party, it's also a group of powerful political people," says political analyst Jose Luis Simon.

"It is a political culture, and that is what a lot of opposition leaders don't understand. "

New political landscape

But economist Fernando Massi senses an appetite for change.

"The people are tired of being unemployed, the people are tired of being poor and the people are tired of corruption," he says.

"And the people are understanding for the first time that corruption is related to poverty and employment and that was not understood before."

A song in Guarani, the indigenous language widely spoken here alongside Spanish, greets the arrival of the most controversial candidate in the race, Lino Oviedo, who is a fluent speaker.

A former general, he was released from jail last year after a 10-year sentence for attempting to stage a coup was overturned. He has also been accused of involvement in the assassination of a Paraguayan vice-president.

But his supporters do not seem to be disturbed by the allegation of taking part in a coup attempt.

"Paraguay enjoys the separation of power - executive, legislative and judicial," one man said. "That fact was investigated, tried and he was set free. The accusations were without foundation."

As the election campaign drew to a close, Fernando Lugo chose to stay away from the final televised debate with the other candidates, accusing his opponents of dirty tricks.

It may prove to be a blunder, and he was subjected to a withering and sustained attack from the host of the debate as his opponents clearly relished the moment.

Paraguayans are preparing for a key decision that could change the political landscape in their country, and fears of fraud have been raised with claims that some 25,000 on the electoral register are either deceased or not entitled to vote.

Whether or not the dead vote with the living on Sunday, the result appears to be finely balanced.

Paraguay election: Key candidates
17 Apr 08 |  Americas

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