Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Context of the Paraguayan Presidential Election

This is a guest post.

Samuel Fishman lives in Paraguay where he teaches English with an English Teaching Assistant Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of State. He graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. He is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. .

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the political protests that reverberated through Paraguay on March 31st of last year. On that day, thousands of Paraguayans of all ages and political stripes took to the streets of the capital city Asunción and throughout the nation. Over the course of the chaotic night the national Congress building was lit on fire by demonstrators and a young protester was shot and killed by police. In spite of the violence however, over the course of this year the protests have showed themselves to have a number of durable effects, most notably a dramatic increase in youth political involvement and the strengthening of local independent media outlets. These two effects will be critical factors when Paraguayans go to the polls this Sunday to choose their next president.

The demonstrations were a response to a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Presidents to seek re-election, which is verboten by the national constitution. Opposition to the amendment stemmed from two objections, once substantive and one procedural. South America’s longest continuous dictatorship ended in Paraguay in 1989, so Paraguayans remain skeptical of any strengthening of executive power. On the procedural side, the amendment (enmienda) emerged from a secret closed-doors session of the Paraguayan Senate, and received support from traditional bitter political rivals from the two largest political parties. These strange bedfellows were seen as cooperating for self-serving political strategy; both parties stand to gain from extended term limits.

However, it appears that backlash to the enmienda triggered some positive changes. Historically, levels of youth engagement in Paraguayan politics have been low. A recent survey by the Centro de Información y Recursos para elDesarrollo showed that thirty-four percent of respondents believe many young people do not vote due to a lack of interest in politics and elections. Yet, a series of growing youth mobilization efforts following the enmienda suggests March 31st marked a turning point of sorts. Ever since, the streets have flooded with massive youth-led non-violent demonstrations to raise awareness for women's rights, LGBT rights, the environment, and other progressive causes. Notably, these events often unite trabajdores, empleadas, universitarios, campesinos and many disparate groups into broad, inclusive coalitions.

Clearly, the enmienda counter-protests spurred increased youth political engagement. However, other parts of civil society were also affected, namely, the media. The mainstream Paraguayan media has long been dominated by a handful of brazenly partisan newspapers, some of the largest of which are owned by the outgoing multibillionaire President Horacio Cartes. As the night´s events unfolded, citizens spurned traditional media outlets and increasingly turned to social media and independent media for crucial real time information. As I huddled with a group of university students, they ignored the talking heads blaring from a nearby car radio, and refreshed Twitter for updates. On the other hand, alternative media outlets were thrust into the spotlight with innovative coverage techniques. These sources racked up tens of thousands of views with Facebook Live streams of Congressional debate, shot on personal cell phones. Online streams of the burning Congress building and bloodied opposition politicians immediately went viral, dramatically increasing the viewership of independent media outlets.

Throughout Latin America, as nations have transitioned from dictatorships to democracies, many have struggled with “flexible” term limits for heads of state. A series of countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have lifted presidential term limits. In Paraguay however, citizen outcry was strong enough that the controversial enmienda was retracted and the executive term limit remains in force. When Paraguayans go to the polls this Sunday to choose their next president, the politically empowered Paraguayan youth and the strengthened independent media will play a critical role. University students are organizing on-campus debates between candidates while new media sources are using YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp memes, and other web platforms to broadcast information about the election directly to voters. While the enmienda project itself failed, one year later its political legacy later remains strong. These two factors, youth involvement and independent media, could play a deciding role in this Sunday’s presidential election and the future of Paraguayan politics.


Eusebio Cadogan 8:28 PM  

Thank you for your informative, concise and objective information.

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