ASUNCION, Paraguay – Former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won a historic victory in Paraguay’s presidential election Sunday, ending more than six decades of one-party rule with a mandate to help the nation’s poor and indigenous.
His rival, Blanca Ovelar, conceded defeat after a closely fought race to lead this poor, agrarian nation where Ovelar’s Colorado Party is the only ruling party most people have ever known.
News of the win by Lugo, dubbed the “bishop of the poor,” set off massive parties in cities across Paraguay with horn-honking caravans of cars blaring music. Others stamped on torn-down banners of the Colorado Party, which many Paraguayans blame for decades of corruption by political elites.
The triumph by Lugo’s eclectic opposition alliance also marked the latest in a series of electoral wins by leftist, or center-left, leaders in South America.
“Today you have spoken at the polls,” Lugo, 56, told tens of thousands of supporters in downtown Asuncion, as fireworks burst under a full moon. “You have decided what has to be done in Paraguay. You have decided to be a free Paraguay. Thank you, thank you, all of you!”
Journalism student Andrea Ramirez, 19, waved a Paraguayan flag at the rally. “I voted for the first time and am very happy. The shameless and cynical ones have lost.”
With 12,983 of some 14,000 balloting stations counted, officials said Lugo had 41 percent of the vote, Ovelar had 31 percent and former army chief Lino Oviedo had 22 percent. Minor candidates accounted for the remaining votes. Election officials said that the tally accounts for nearly 1.7 million votes – out of a 2.8 million electorate.
Ovelar, a former education minister and protege of outgoing President Nicanor Duarte, conceded that she had lost after initially disputing exit poll results. She would have been Paraguay’s first female president.
“The outcome is irreversible,” Ovelar, 50, said on national television five hours after polls closed after largely peaceful voting. Election officials said Sunday’s voting had the highest turnout – about 66 percent – of any presidential election since the end of the 35-year dictatorship of the late Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
Lugo’s triumph shattered the 61-year grip on national power by the Colorado Party, which had endured through dictatorship and democracy to become the region’s longest-ruling party. It had been in power longer than Cuba’s Communist Party.
Supporters of Lugo set off booming volleys of fireworks in the Paraguayan capital, the cacophony swelling for hours after the exit polls project a stronger-than-expected victory for Lugo.
News broadcasts showed two minor scuffles outside polling places Sunday, but officials said voting was without serious incidents.
The Colorado Party had long stayed in power thanks to an extensive party apparatus and hundreds of thousands of loyal government civil servants.
Eight months ago, Lugo welded leftist unions, Indians and poor farmers into a coalition with Paraguay’s main opposition party: the conservative Authentic Radical Party.
Lugo then launched a charismatic campaign in which he blamed Paraguay’s deep-seated economic woes on decades of corruption by an elite that ruled at the expense of the poor in a country of subsistence farmers.
A bishop since 1994, he resigned the post in December 2006 to sidestep Paraguay’s constitutional ban on clergy seeking office. Lugo says he was influenced by the liberation theology frowned upon by the Vatican. But he declares he is neither on the left nor the right but leads an independent, pluralistic coalition.