At the end of May, President Horacio Cartes of Paraguay formally submitted his resignation to Congress. This was to enable him to take a seat in the country’s senate. His term was due to officially end in August, but given that incoming senators are to be sworn in on June 30 and the Constitution prohibits officials holding two offices simultaneously, his resignation from the presidency would allow him to assume his senate seat.
On Tuesday however, President Cartes announced that he was withdrawing his resignation. Successive attempts to try and get Congress to accept his resignation were stymied by opposition parties, including the left-leaning alliance led by the former President, Fernando Lugo, together with members of his own Colorado Party. The opposition of these legislators prevented the senate achieving a quorum and so Cartes’ resignation remained formally unapproved.
Paraguayan presidents are limited to one five-year term, but the Constitution allows for former presidents to become senators for life. These are relatively toothless positions however, whereby former presidents are allowed to express their opinion in the senate, but they have no vote or no real capacity for political leadership. Cartes therefore, and with the backing of the Constitutional Court, ran for a full senate seat in the recent elections on April 22nd, which he duly won. An attempt last year by Cartes to reform the Constitution to allow for the extension of the current provision on term limits ultimately ended in failure amidst popular opposition and public demonstrations.
Accession to a full, elected senate seat, as opposed to the largely ceremonial seat he is constitutionally entitled to, would also afford Cartes the complete set of rights and prerogatives available to senators. This includes immunity from prosecution, which some have suggested is the major impetus behind Cartes’ eagerness to leave the presidency and assume a senate seat.
Before he became president, Cartes built up a family empire spanning businesses involved in banking, tobacco, the drinks industry and even soccer. But during his presidency, WikiLeaks published a 2010 US State Department cable alleging that Cartes was the head of a criminal operation involving drug trafficking and money laundering. In 1986, Cartes spent sixty days in jail as a result of an investigation into currency fraud.
The general assumption is that once the term-limited Cartes leaves the presidential office, he will face criminal charges relating to his business activities. Hence the resistance of the opposition and some members of his party to his proposed resignation.
Cartes is not alone in seeking immunity from prosecution in the sanctuary of a senate seat. Most famously, Augusto Pinochet became a senator for life with immunity from prosecution in Chile following his defeat in the 1988 referendum. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is also facing prosecution over the alleged cover-up of Iranian involvement in the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, a Jewish community centre, in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, but is currently protected by her position as a senator. And given the current legal woes of former Peruvian presidents, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Ollanta Humala, and Alejandro Toledo, in the wake of the Odebrecht affair, I have no doubt they would welcome the protection a senate seat (with immunity) might bring.