A charismatic leader dubbed the Bishop of the Poor is an early favourite to make history as the first man to serve as a Roman Catholic bishop then be elected president of his country. Even when presidential elections next April are still far Fernando Lugo has the support from 40% of voters and is ten points ahead of his runner up.
But the Vatican is not pleased, and it's not alone: Lugo's candidacy not only tests the church's strict prohibition on clergy seeking political office, it also challenges the established elites in Paraguay which have dominated the country with 60 years of unbroken rule by President Nicanor Duarte's Colorado Party. Like many Paraguayans, Lugo blames the Colorados for the struggling economy, rampant corruption and politics that favour rich elites in the landlocked, agrarian nation. "I believe the official party is responsible for the poverty, the corruption and the dishonesty in this country" Lugo said during an interview at his brother's home. "We need a country that's more just and more equitable." Lugo, who resigned as bishop in December to sidestep Paraguay's constitutional ban on clergy seeking office, sees politics as a solution to the problems of his former flock in the San Pedro region. He spent nearly 11 years there, ministering to hungry peasants who toil in cotton and soybean fields of rich landowners. Lugo used his pulpit to rally the poor to help themselves. He hasn't said exactly what he would do as president, but he said recent travels indicate people want agrarian reform, industrial production and more jobs. And in a trip to Washington, he insisted that he's nothing like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "Chavez is a military man and I have a religious background," Lugo told reporters. "My candidacy has arisen at the request of the people; it was born in a different way than Hugo Chavez's." Lugo's upstart campaign gained significant organizational support when he agreed last month to accept a running mate from the Authentic Radical Liberals, Paraguay's main opposition party, which has spent decades challenging Colorado rule and can help finance and mount a nationwide campaign. Nonetheless, several smaller opposition parties have not said whether they would unite behind Lugo, and his bid could be derailed in court. Duarte has yet to file a legal challenge, which must be declared before a November 28 registration deadline, but the president has repeatedly criticized Lugo while backing former education minister Blanca Ovelar as the Colorados' candidate. "That candidacy is unconstitutional," said Duarte, who as a sitting president is constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election. "Lugo is a member of the clergy who doesn't know if he's a bishop or what". The Vatican has refused to accept Lugo's resignation, saying bishops are for life and the head of the Paraguayan Bishops Conference has suggested Lugo risks excommunication if he keeps up his campaign. The Vatican came down even harder against Haiti's first democratically elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a leftist priest and strong advocate of liberation theology who was expelled by his conservative Salesian order for preaching class struggle. When soldiers ousted Aristide in 1991, the Vatican was the only foreign state to recognize the military regime. Also, Pope John Paul II famously admonished a Jesuit priest appointed Nicaragua's culture minister with a wag of his finger. And Jesuit priest Robert Drinan represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress for 11 years until the Vatican officially said he should not hold the post, and he stepped down. Pope Benedict XVI weighed in during his trip to Latin America, telling a bishops conference that the "political task is not the immediate competence of the Church." Benedict also has taken a hard line against liberation theology, a Catholic movement that remains strong in Latin America, which holds that Christianity's central mission is to free the poor from oppression. Lugo said liberation theology is just one of many influences on his thinking, and noted that former popes have called responsible politics a "healthy and just activity." Dozens of peasant, farm, labour, Indian and leftist groups back Lugo, but he resists ideological labels, saying for example that he embraces "socially responsible" capitalism. "I am not of the left, nor of the right. I'm in the middle as a candidate sought by many people," he said. However Alberto Soljancic president of Paraguay's powerful Rural Association of landholders argues that "underneath that cassock and that big cross he wore on his chest, he was into politics all the time".