Paraguay house delays re-election vote after protests; bill's backers persist

By Daniela Desantis


ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay's lower house is delaying a vote on an amendment that would allow presidents to stand for re-election to give President Horacio Cartes' call for dialogue a chance after violent protests over a closed-door Senate vote.


Supporters of Cartes, a former soft-drink and tobacco businessman, want him to be able to seek a second term. Late on Sunday, Cartes called on different political factions to meet and discuss ways to reduce tensions in the South American country of 6.8 million after an appeal from Pope Francis.


Then on Monday, Hugo Velazquez, the head of the lower house and Cartes ally, told journalists that as long as dialogue continues "and we are trying to arrive at solutions to the problems we have, the chamber of deputies will not consider the amendment."


Protests on Friday in which parts of the Congress building were set on fire and a protester was shot and killed by police, punctured a period of relative stability under Cartes - the soy and beef exporting nation became one of South America's fastest-growing economies and began moving past a long history of political uncertainty.

People protested against a group of Senators who called a special session behind closed doors, rather than on the Senate floor, on Friday to vote on the measure. Twenty-five lawmakers voted for the measure, two more than the 23 required for passage in the 45-member upper chamber.

Senators opposed to re-election on Monday asked the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the vote. New protests are planned in front of Congress for Monday night.

The bill appeared to have strong support in the 80-member lower house. The measure would also benefit other former presidents, including leftist Fernando Lugo who was impeached in 2012.

Paraguay's 1992 constitution prohibits presidential re-election, a sensitive subject ever since a 35-year dictatorship fell in 1989. Senator Lilian Samaniego, a Cartes ally, said re-election supporters would not be deterred.

"The proposal will not be withdrawn," she said after leaving a meeting in the presidential palace with governors, mayors and other politicians.

The leader of the opposition Liberal Party, Efrain Alegre, said he would participate in the dialogue called by Cartes only after an investigation into the protester's death was completed and Friday's Senate vote was annulled.

"First we have to get things in order and then we can have a thousand meetings if that's what it takes," he said.

(Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Writing by Luc Cohen and Caroline Stauffer; editing by Grant McCool)