Paraguay house delays re-election vote but protests persist

ASUNCION, April 3 (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters gathered outside Paraguay’s Congress yesterday evening in a new but peaceful demonstration over an unpopular Senate vote for an amendment last week that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election.

Protesters clashed violently with police last Friday, storming and setting fire to the Congress building after a group of senators called a special session behind closed doors, rather than on the Senate floor, to pass the measure.

One protester was shot and killed by police who stormed the opposition Liberal Party’s headquarters.

Supporters of Cartes, a former soft-drink and tobacco businessman, want him to be able to seek a second term in a country that constitutionally forbid re-election after a 35-year dictatorship fell in 1989.

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, who hails from neighbouring Argentina.

The amendment would still have to be approved by the lower house, where it was expected to have strong support. But the head of the lower house and Cartes ally, Hugo Velazquez, told reporters yesterday the vote would be delayed until the dialogue Cartes requested took place. It is scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

The protests punctured a period of relative stability under Cartes in which 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.

Senators opposed to re-election yesterday asked the Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the vote. Leaders of opposition political parties met with the Organization of American States’ representative in Paraguay, decrying the “institutional coup” and asking the organization to intervene.

Last night, thousands gathered peacefully outside Congress holding candles in a vigil for the 25-year-old protester, Rodrigo Quintana, killed by police during the demonstrations. They also lined up to sign a petition calling for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Signs reading “S.O.S. Paraguay” hung from tents in the plaza, where people grilled meat and settled in for a long night of protest. Dozens of police officers stood behind fences separating the plaza from the entrance to the Congress building, while another group carrying riot gear stood by.

The officer accused of killing Quintana inside the Liberal Party’s headquarters was charged with homicide yesterday and faces up to 30 years in prison, newspaper Ultima Hora reported. The charged officer told local television he believed his gun was loaded with rubber bullets.

Senator Lilian Samaniego, a Cartes ally, said re-election supporters would not be deterred by the protests and opposition.

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

Opposition leader Efrain Alegre said he would participate in the dialogue called by Cartes only after an investigation into Quintana’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.

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