Saturday, April 05, 2008

In Campaign's Home Stretch, Paraguay Prelate Atop Polls

While the Pope's saying the final Mass of his Stateside swing at Yankee Stadium on 20 April, don't be surprised if at least one of the "traveling Vatican" has a presidential election on the brain.

Just not the one on these shores.

That's the date when Paraguay -- best known (for those who remember their 6th grade geography) as Latin America's landlocked nation... well, one of 'em -- chooses its new leader. But more important to the Roman mind than the long-dominant Colorado Party's hold on power being threatened is that the challenge comes from a retired bishop.

Running at the top of a populist-geared reform ticket, Fernando Lugo -- who led the diocese of San Pedro, in the country's poorest area, from 1994-2005 -- has given the Colorado its most formidable scare since the party came to government in 1947. To run for the top office, Lugo resigned his ecclesiastical post in early 2005, announcing his candidacy on Christmas Day 2006 -- a move the Holy See reacted to by barring the prelate-politico from exercising his ministry while denying his petition to be released from the clerical state. In addition, Lugo's former confreres of the nation's episcopal conference have held out the possibility of excommunication in light of his political engagement.

Known as the "bishop of the poor," the former provincial of the Divine Word Fathers has led the polls since announcing his bid to lead the nation of 6.7 million (90% Catholic), and the world's longest-ruling political dynasty has taken to weighing extra-electoral options to keep its grip on the levers; at one point, some of its operatives considered short-circuiting the challenge with an appeal to the constitutional ban on clerics holding office (a tactic Rome's refusal to laicize Lugo would seemingly have aided). So far, though, fearful of provoking a further backlash from Lugo's energized base, the campaign's conduct has remained focused on winning votes.

With two weeks to go before Election Day, it shouldn't come as a surprise to election-watchers that the latest polls indicate a mixed bag, with one reporting that the ex-prelate's once-comfortable lead has fallen to within a percentage point of his closest competition in the four-horse race -- Lugo's Patriotic Alliance for Change showing 30.9% to the 30.1% for Colorado candidate Blanca Ovelar -- yet another hewing closer to an early March snapshot that had the ex-prelate's support on 34%, with Olevar at 27%.

Currently the country's education minister, Olevar would be the first female Paraguayan president if elected. A victorious candidate requires a plurality of the vote.

Amid a climate that's seen several politicians -- including a vice-president -- assassinated in recent years, late last month Lugo conceded that his life was in danger, with the scenario said to be a widespread fear in the run-up to the ballot. But even so, he declined enhanced security, saying that the people were his "best protection," according to local reports.

Bottom line: just when you thought the run for the White House was the biggest nail-biter going these days, think again. As always, stay tuned.