April 10, 2008

ELECTIONS-PARAGUAY: Women Unimpressed by Female Candidate

By David Vargas

ASUNCIÓN, Apr 10 (IPS) - For the first time in Paraguayan history, a woman is running for president in the elections on Apr. 20, as the candidate of the Colorado Party, which has governed this country continuously for 61 years.

However, a number of women’s organisations say that Blanca Ovelar, a 50-year-old rural schoolteacher and former Education Minister, was nominated because the Colorados want to stay in power rather than because they are taking gender issues seriously.

Maggy Balbuena, of the National Coordination of Rural and Indigenous Working Women’s Organisations (CONAMURI), says Ovelar does not represent an option for change.

"What she actually represents is 60 years of domination by the Colorado Party, 60 years of poverty and injustice. I think it would be very hard for her to reverse that long history, and I don’t think she can change it all just because she’s a woman," she said.

According to political scientist Lilian Soto, the Colorado candidate "is a person whom a certain power group finds useful for their own ends, and I don’t think she’s really interested in defending women’s rights."

Angélica Cano, a member of Parlamento Mujer, a forum to empower women and increase their access to the structures of political power, says that Ovelar’s candidacy is a way of making political capital out of the image of womanhood.

"When a political project has run out of male representatives that can sustain it, it calls in a woman to legitimise a model that is already obsolete. The contribution of women should be to improve the political sphere," she told IPS.

On the other hand, political scientist Line Bareiro says Ovelar’s candidacy is a great step forward, arising from women’s struggle over decades to gain access to political power.

Graziella Corvalán, a member of the Coordination of Paraguayan Women (CMP), said that although Ovelar "is not a standard-bearer for women’s causes," her candidacy "is an advance."

But she warned that "it’s important to know whether she is going to defend issues that are sensitive for women, because what’s happened to many women who have gone into politics could also happen to her: they don’t know whether they’re defending their gender or their party."

Ovelar’s political career began in mid-2007, with the backing of current President Nicanor Duarte.

Her candidacy emerged after a close primary election that split the Colorado Party, due to resistance from the rank and file membership, who resent Ovelar’s short history as a party activist.

Nevertheless, Ovelar defines herself as the leader of the country’s political renewal, and rejects criticism portraying her as an instrument of Duarte, who supported her candidacy after failing to secure a constitutional reform to allow him to stand for reelection himself.

Ovelar is in second place in the polls, behind the candidate for the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC), former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo. The other presidential candidates are former general and coup leader Lino Oviedo, and conservative businessman Pedro Fadul.

Despite the poll results, Ovelar is confident of winning. "I will be the first woman president of Paraguay, breaking with the ‘machista’ tradition," she told IPS.

She says that she alone represents "true change," because of her "public service record, and because I am a woman."

Ovelar also said that "being on the left or on the right is no longer relevant from an ideological point of view," although she said she is in favour of "a free-market democracy with an active state to direct the country and protect the poor." Women make up 49.6 percent of the population in Paraguay, according to the Office of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses, but they hold barely 10 percent of the seats in Congress.

Women gained the right to vote in 1961, but there were no women ministers in the cabinet until 1989, when then President Andrés Rodríguez (1989-1993) appointed a woman health minister.

According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, 10 percent of the cabinet is currently made up of women, one of the lowest rates in Latin America.

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