BUENOS AIRES — As Paraguay's presidential campaign continues on its madcap course to the May election, the nation faces the very real possibility that the voters will elect as their next president a man who is now behind bars.
Nothing seems strange anymore in the candidacy of former Gen. Lino Oviedo, a flamboyant populist known as "The Horseman" who was ousted as army commander for allegedly leading an attempted coup in 1996.
Oviedo won the ruling party's nomination in September, and his archrival, President Juan Carlos Wasmosy, later ordered his arrest on charges of insulting the president. Oviedo went into hiding and campaigned as a fugitive for 41 days, eluding a rather uninspired search by law enforcement.
Oviedo then surrendered to serve a 30-day sentence, denouncing his enemies as "gangsters, corrupt, demagogues, traitors and anti-democratic." On the eve of his scheduled release this month, a court ordered him held indefinitely in the continuing criminal investigation of the 1996 uprising. Authorities also began investigating allegations that he and a German company had conspired to smuggle toxic waste into Paraguay.
It seems clear that the government has unleashed an all-out effort to block the election of Oviedo, whom the U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and other critics call a danger to a fragile democracy. It is less clear whether the aggressive strategy will work.
A criminal conviction would disqualify Oviedo from taking office, but allies and some independent observers say the judicial onslaught and his incarceration in a military brig in Asuncion, the capital, have not seriously damaged the candidate's front-runner status.
"The general is in a great mood," Victor Galeano, a lawyer and Oviedo advisor, said in an interview this week. "He is confident he will win the elections without problems even if he is still confined at the military base. The only possibility the government has is to eliminate him physically."
Oviedo is the man to defeat because the political machine of his corrupt Colorado Party has run Paraguay for decades. Wasmosy is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection. His vice president openly supports Oviedo, and Luis Argana, the loser in the bitter primary, grudgingly pledged to support the ruling party's nominee "even if Donald Duck were the candidate."
Although some polls have shown Oviedo with 60% of the vote, analysts do not see an Oviedo victory as inevitable. One recent poll gave him only a 7-point lead over the candidates of a newly formed alliance of opposition parties, according to Carlos Martini, a political science professor at Catholic University in Asuncion.
"It is a delicate moment," Martini said. "There is a lot of uncertainty. A lot can still happen before the election."
Oviedo has cast a shadow over Wasmosy's administration ever since the U.S. and Brazilian ambassadors intervened to head off the aborted coup. His heavy-handed style and eccentric antics have caused concern among Paraguayan leaders, diplomats and international investors.
His campaign has a flair for melodrama: After commandos raided his Asuncion mansion looking for the fugitive, his wife told reporters that one of the raiders was a "drugged-looking mercenary" wearing rubber gloves and carrying a machine gun outfitted with a silencer--an assassin stalking her husband, she asserted.
Nonetheless, Oviedo supporters claim the tacit backing of the security forces. Galeano said: "During the days he was a fugitive, he was able to campaign all over the nation. The police helped him. The military helped him. Everyone knew where he was except the president."