The Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo who is running for Paraguay's presidency and leading in the opinion polls, has polarized the Church with some backing him as a force for change and others saying he violated age-old doctrine.
Lugo stepped down as bishop last year and the Vatican suspended him, but he remains a priest under Canon law because the Catholic Church views ordination as a lifelong sacrament. "Within the Church, there was a mixed reaction to Lugo's foray into the political arena," said Enrique Caceres, assistant dean at the Catholic University in Asuncion. "On the one hand, an important group of Catholics accepts him and hopes he will bring about long-awaited change, while others believe this is not a pastor's role," he said. Paraguay's constitution bars religious leaders from running for president, and members of the ruling Colorado Party once threatened to challenge Lugo's candidacy on the grounds that he was still a priest. The Catholic Church is seen as one of the most trustworthy institutions in Paraguay, the 5.6 million people landlocked country where corruption is rampant. Lugo is especially popular with the poor and defends his decision to enter politics, describing it as the only way he can help bring about real change. His presidential bid has put church leaders in a difficult position. In August, the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference felt obliged to say it did not back any candidates in the race, while urging that parishes not be used for party politics. President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who has been highly critical of the former bishop, said last week that Lugo's participation in the April 2008 election would give the contest more legitimacy. But the Paraguayan president also took a jab at Lugo after meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome last week saying his candidacy had upset some Vatican officials. Duarte is backing his former education minister, Blanca Ovelar, for the ruling party's presidential nomination. Political analysts say Lugo's chances of clinching the presidency have been complicated after another popular candidate recently jumped in the race, dividing the opposition and improving the Colorado Party's prospects. The man is former General Lino Oviedo, a populist leader, fluent in the local Guarani language that was, unexpectedly, set free from jail where he was making time for mutiny. He belongs to one of the groupings of the ruling Colorado Party and is campaigning vigorously and has quickly surged in the polls just behind Lugo.