VILLARRICA, PARAGUAY — A sense of new possibilities courses through the crowd even before "the bishop of the poor" shows up in the plaza of this sugar-cane farming center.
"I'm not here to hand out beer, liquor, sausages," Fernando Lugo advises, alluding to the traditional giveaways of Paraguayan pols on the stump. "I'm here to share the hope of change with the people."
Tiny, landlocked Paraguay, still recovering from the stultifying legacy of the 35-year dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, will cast ballots today to elect a new president. The stunning emergence of Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, as the leading presidential candidate has turned the place upside down.
The so-called pink tide of left-leaning leaders has altered the face of Latin America. But there has been no candidate quite like Lugo. Supporters see him as the embodiment of hope amid gloom. Critics warn of an impending conflagration if the arm-waving orator wins.
"From today on, my cathedral will be the country," Lugo declared when he resigned the priesthood in December 2006. The Vatican, irritated by the public gesture, says Lugo remains a priest and is barred by canon law from seeking public office.
Voters in the United States may question whether any U.S. presidential aspirant will deliver on the "change" mantra. Here, not even Lugo's fiercest enemies doubt that he is capable of shaking up sleepy Paraguay.
Lugo is like a charismatic comet on a collision course with the lumbering planet that is Paraguay's political status quo -- more than 60 years of leadership by the Colorado Party, which has governed longer than any political party currently in power, including the communist regimes of China and North Korea. The Colorado reign includes the brutal klepto-dictatorship of Stroessner, who was ousted in 1989, leaving the country broke, backward and ill-equipped for a globalized 21st century. Democracy is a fragile notion here.
Detractors call Lugo a leftist fanatic who will lead the country to socialistic ruin, creating a protectorate of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in South America's tropical heartland. Outgoing President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, a firm U.S. ally who is barred by the constitution from seeking reelection, even charged last week that "social agitators" were plotting attacks.
"They want to burn properties, service stations and other resources to upset the social peace," Duarte said. "The one responsible for the violence and death is going to be Fernando Lugo and his band of delinquents and kidnappers."
Supporters say Lugo radiates a priest-like sense of honesty in a nation with a desultory recent history of dictatorship and graft. He vows to fight corruption, impose long-delayed agrarian reform to benefit the landless and renegotiate hydroelectric deals with neighboring Brazil and Argentina to fund education and other neglected social needs.
Lugo refuses to be characterized as a leftist or anything other than a deeply religious crusader who fights for the little guy. He takes inspiration from liberation theology, a movement championing the downtrodden but assailed by the Vatican for Marxist influences.
"I have taken a preferential option for the poor, and many interpret that as meaning I am a leftist," Lugo says during an interview as his campaign van hurtles through the drowsy, lost-in-time atmosphere of rural Paraguay. "But I believe I am in the center. My beliefs are against confrontation or violence."
Chavez, he says, has provided "important leadership" for Venezuela, but Paraguay must find its own model. Washington needs to keep a distance from Latin America's political transformation, he says. "I don't think the United States has any choice but to accept these changes." But he refrains from Chavez-style U.S.-bashing.
The 56-year-old Lugo, heavyset, bespectacled and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, has never held elective office. He comes from a middle-class family of political activists and attended university and completed postgraduate studies in Rome, but says he was always close to the peasantry.
Lugo did stints as a schoolteacher and missionary before becoming a rural bishop known for both his political activism and conciliatory skills. He says he opted to seek office after more than 100,000 people signed a petition urging him to run. On the campaign trail, he still sports his priestly sandals.
He faces a formidable foe. In Paraguay, the Colorado Party is the government, just as Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party embodied the state during its seven decades of power. Average Paraguayans may have trouble getting anything, including work and good housing, without a hand from the party's patronage apparatus.
"It's time to re-found the republic," Lugo says, repeating well-rehearsed lines. "It's time that jobs go to the most qualified, the most honest -- not to those who know people in the government."