Archive for Friday, May 7, 1993


May 7, 1993


John Poertner will travel thousands of miles for an election and not cast a vote.

The associate professor of social welfare at Kansas University left today for Paraguay's capital, Asuncion, to be an international observer for Sunday's national election.

Paraguay's 4-year-old democracy faces its first major test in elections clouded by fears of a military coup and vote-fixing.

"This will be the first presidential election in Paraguay where the outcome isn't predetermined in about 50 years," Poertner said.

Paraguay was ruled by Gen. Alfredo Stroessner for 34 years. Government corruption and repression of dissidents were hallmarks of Stroessner's dictatorship.

In 1989, Stroessner's iron-fisted rule was ended in a coup d'etat led by Gen. Andres Rodriquez, then commander of the cavalary. Rodriquez was elected president after the coup.

He has earned an international reputation for espousing democracy and civil liberties, but his presidential term expires in August.

"He has done a remarkable job in leading the country to democracy," Poertner said.

Rodriquez has promised a fair and free vote, even threatening to send tanks on to the streets to guarantee the rights of 1.7 million voters who will chose a new president, congressional representatives, senators and provincial authorities.

HOWEVER, Poertner said the Paraguayan military remains a powerful influence in the landlocked country.

"The biggest unknown is the role of the army," Poertner said. "For the last 50 years the military and civilian government have been virtually indistinguishable.

"There is a lot of concern about whether the military will allow a civilian to become president."

Poertner was chosen to be an election observer by the Latin American Studies Assn., a group of U.S. college and university faculty members. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter heads a team of international observers.

"Our role is to see if they have in place procedures to prevent fraud and see if those are followed," he said.

During Stroessner's dictatorship, voting fraud was blatant. Government troops would turn known opposition supporters away from the polls. Individuals were allowed to vote more than once for Stroessner by casting ballots for dead people, Poertner said.

POERTNER HAS worked in Paraguay with the Peace Corps and other organizations to improve social services in the country.

Paraguayans continue to struggle with democracy, he said. Most people want to avoid another coup that would jeopardize the few democratic reforms in place, he said.

"There is a very healthy national debate going on about where the country is going," Poertner said.

Poertner said only three of the seven presidential candidates are considered contenders.

Some polls give the lead to textile magnate Caballero Vargas of the newly formed centrist National Unity Party.

Candidates for Paraguay's two traditional parties the Colorado Party and the Authentic Radical Liberal Party were expected to battle for second place.

Construction tycoon and former cabinet minister Juan Carlos Wasmosy of the Colorado Party is the favorite of military hardliners. He is connected to Stroessner and Rodriquez. Domingo Laino is the liberal party's candidate.

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