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Archive for Thursday, May 27, 1993

ELECTION OBSERVER APPRECIATES U.S.

May 27, 1993

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Observing the first democratic election in Paraguay's history taught John Poertner an important lesson about political stability in the United States.

"It's a cliche, but it really did make me appreciate our system," said Poertner, associate professor of social welfare at Kansas University.

"The notion of being concerned that the military will take over and run the government doesn't even occur to us," he said. "The whole voting process for us is so easy that we sort of take it for granted."

Construction tycoon and former cabinet minister Juan Carlos Wasmosy of the Colorado Party was elected president.

Poertner served as an international election observer this month during Paraguay's national election, which could lead to the first democratic handover of power in the landlocked country's 182-year history.

He said Paraguay had a long history of voter fraud, and there was certainly misconduct in this election. Estimates of voter fraud ranged from 4 percent to 20 percent of ballots cast.

Nevertheless, Poertner said, the election was important for Paraguayans.

"It was a substantial step toward formation of a freely elected government," he said.

Poertner was chosen to be an election observer by the Latin American Studies Assn. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also headed a team of observers.

On election day, Poertner toured polling locations and political offices near Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay.

"Jimmy Carter said his perception was the elections were fair and democratic," Poertner said. "I think that was probably accurate."

Paraguay was ruled by Gen. Alfredo Stroessner for 34 years. His dictatorship was marked by corruption.

In 1989, Stroessner's rule was ended in a coup led by Gen. Andres Rodriquez. Rodriquez subsequently was elected president. He insisted that the military relinquish its role in governing the country.

Although Wasmosy was the favorite of military hardliners, the threat of another coup led by the army remains a possibility.

"People wonder if he's strong enough to stand up against the military," Poertner said. "Does he have the political backing and personal strength to tell the military: 'You do serve us, not the other way around?'"

Paraguayans struggled with the democratic process, Poertner said.

The voter registration system is antiquated. It was difficult for some people to determine the location of their voting place, he said.

He said the ruling Colorado Party obtained a court order on election day that closed the border to Paraguayans attempting to travel home from Argentina to vote. That order was rescinded 30 minutes before the polls closed.

Telephone lines of a group attempting to conduct a parallel count of election returns were cut, Poertner said.

"Carter intervened in that situation. He said it was a clear effort on the part of the telephone company, which is part of the government, to cause problems with the election," he said.

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