'Red Bishop' of Paraguay set to oust world's longest-ruling party

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The Independent US

Paraguay is on the eve of a historic political transition as a left-leaning former bishop promises to oust the world's longest-ruling party from power tomorrow. Fernando Lugo quit his job preaching liberation theology to the impoverished masses to tackle the entrenched power of the Colorado Party, which has ruled the Latin American nation for the past 62 years.

Opinion polls suggest that the ex-priest is on the brink of becoming the latest left-wing leader to be swept to power in the remarkable "pink" tide that has swept the continent. Dubbed the Red Bishop, Mr Lugo has proved to be a formidable presidential candidate, attacking the interests of the large Brazilian landowners in Paraguay and promising to renegotiate the country's energy deal with its vast neighbour.

Previously the bishop of the poor diocese of San Pedro, he has a strong human rights track record and has led peasant protests and defied local agribusiness barons. After exchanging the pulpit for the soapbox in 2006, he drummed up nationwide support for his candidacy based on a single word – cambio, or change.

"It's the first time people really have the expectation that change is possible," said Alfredo Cantero, the political editor of ABC/Color. The influential newspaper is traditionally a bastion of liberal economic views, but no longer makes a secret of its support for the left-wing former prelate.

The change people are looking out for is the defeat of the Colorado Party and subsequently an improvement in their economic situation. But despite leading by at least five points in the polls, Mr Lugo still faces a tough battle to win tomorrow's election.

Blanca Ovelar, the Colorado candidate and former education minister, is backed by impressive political machinery that has been accused of every possible kind of fraud in the past. Public servants are reported to have received a letter from Mrs Ovelar reminding them who they work for.

"The Colorado Party will accept defeat if the margin is big enough," says Mr Cantero, "but they'll do everything to stop that happening, ranging from fraud to threats and riots."

The other main contender is an archetypal Latin-American caudillo, or strongman, Lino Oviedo. Like the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, Mr Oviedo is a chatty populist and former army officer, convicted of plotting a coup. The caudillo has a large following in rural areas thanks to his tough-on-corruption stance and paternalistic manner. Despite railing against the Colorado Party, he was released from jail to lure supporters away from Mr Lugo, according to President Niconar Duarte's own admission.

Nonetheless, the former bishop has managed to stay ahead of the field until now, building up grassroots support by trailing across the country for more than a year talking to the rural poor and promising them land reform, security and an end to corruption.

Using more modern platforms, such as YouTube, Mr Lugo has also connected with his two million countrymen abroad. Realising the importance of a high turnout, his supporters have also arranged for two free trains to take thousands of migrant workers from the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires to the Paraguayan border before Sunday, so they can vote in their home towns.

But the former bishop's politics remain something of an enigma. It is clear he favours a far more left-of-centre approach than Paraguay, a traditional US-ally, is used to. But his backers range from radical peasant leaders to the establishment Liberal Party. His critics say Mr Lugo is another Hugo Chavez, but he says he admires the Brazilian President, Lula da Silva, and his Chilean counterpart, Michelle Bachelet. Paraguay is "different", Mr Lugo insists, and requires a different approach.