Et tu Brute
THERE IS a quality of a Shakesperean character to Federico Franco, a “vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself” that would befit the lead character of one of the Bard’s political dramas. Paraguay’s vice-president, now president, had long both openly coveted the job and conspired against his coalition partner and the man who appointed him, President Fernando Lugo.
On Friday he was named president by the Senate after Lugo’s expedited impeachment just nine months before the next presidential election. The hearing, cheered on by Franco, lasted six hours, an alacrity that contrasts starkly with the sclerotic Paraguayan justice system.
The impeachment has not gone down well in the region. Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, has warned her country “will not validate this coup d’état”, and Paraguay was suspended over the weekend from Mercosur, the trade bloc dominated by Brazil. Venezuela has halted fuel shipments.
Lugo, after initially appearing to accept his dismissal, is now minded to fight for reinstatement. A former Catholic bishop whose political life has been mired by two paternity suits, his election ended six decades of rule by the populist, deeply corrupt Colorado party. But he struggled against a hostile congress to push through his progressive agenda of reforms, including land redistribution to poor peasant farmers and attempts to deal with the country’s endemic corruption, hampered not least by his coalition partner, Franco’s Liberal Party. There were frequent rumours of coup plots. The impeachment was ostenstibly about his “malfeasance” after 17 people were killed in a clash earlier this month between police and squatters.
The public response has been muted, only a few low-key demonstrations in support of Lugo – real pressure for a reversal will probably depend on diplomatic and economic leverage from the country’s neighbours. And Paraguay’s electoral tribunal has both ruled the impeachment vote constitutional, and that the presidential election will go ahead as planned next year.
With Lugo debarred by term limits from standing again, Franco seized his chance to take the job now in the certainty that the coalition which displaced the Colorado party would not reward his long-term disloyalty with an endorsement next year. Polls point to a likely win for Colorado’s Horacio Cartes, a cigarette smuggler the US believes is involved in the country’s drug trade.But that is still some way off and Franco may not yet have heard the last from Paraguay’s sacked bishop.