ASUNCION, Paraguay The odds are against Paraguay's president-elect even before he takes office on Friday. Fernando Lugo says his impoverished nation "could go up in flames" within months.
The former Catholic bishop has made history by ending 61 years of authoritarian one-party rule, but his first task is to avoid political chaos and civil unrest, even as elements on the left and right challenge his authority.
Just last week, the sandal-clad Lugo couldn't find fuel for his diesel-powered SUV. Supplies of medicine have run out in public hospitals. And landless peasants who have been seizing private property are threatening a much larger wave of invasions in the hours after Lugo is sworn in before a host of foreign leaders.
But none of that mattered Thursday night to 5,000 cheering supporters at an outdoor sports complex who rose to their feet, greeting Lugo like a rock star when he promised to run the first clean and transparent Paraguayan administration in memory.
"I entered politics so Paraguay can stop being known to the world as the country of drug trafficking, corruption and illegality," Lugo said to thundering applause. "I didn't come to steal or get rich."
Despite the vow, Lugo's team suspects the outgoing government is trying to undermine his presidency even before it begins, by letting critical supplies disappear and provoking confrontations.
"Distribution is deficient, there are absolutely no reserves. They haven't even done public bidding for health supplies. Imagine taking power Aug. 15 and finding no medications or diesel fuel. It is a country that could go up in flames within two or three months. This is why we say there is a kind of conspiracy to leave state institutions nonfunctioning," Lugo told reporters from Argentina and Paraguay's newspaper ABC Color after he stopped at an empty gas station.
Incoming interior minister Rafael Filizzola suspects at least one land invasion was financed by Lugo's right-wing opponents. "There are backward-looking factions within this party who aspire to come back to power early and not democratically," Filizzola said.
Outgoing president Nicanor Duarte promised this week that he "will not sabotage Fernando Lugo nor create a climate of hostility during his term." But he also criticized Lugo's Cabinet choices, and insisted that his conservative Colorado Party will continue to be a strong force throughout the country.
In fact, the conservative Colorado Party still controls most government institutions in the small landlocked country, where corruption is entrenched and just 1 percent of the population owns 77 percent of the land.
There are so few job opportunities in the nation of 6.8 million that many have abandoned the country altogether. The US$500 million Paraguayans sent home last year represents more than all foreign investment in the country, according to the World Bank, playing an outsize role in an economy otherwise dominated by soy farms and black-market trading in electronics.
Lugo pledged on Thursday to work hard so that the nearly 100,000 Paraguayans who have left to find jobs in the United States and Spain could return home.
At work in his favor is a tremendous desire among Paraguayans for a more just and equal society, and his own reputation, formed through decades of work with poor parishioners, as an honest man.
"The indigenous and the poor will be the privileged of my government," he said. "I pay homage to those tortured years ago, to those persecuted and those who suffered unjustly in prison."
Tall, bearded, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Lugo reassures his fans that politics won't co-opt him. He says he won't get married during his five-year term, even though the pope released him from his vows of chastity, and that when he formally accepts the presidential sash and the gold-encrusted staff Friday among presidents and Spain's crown prince, he'll probably be wearing sandals, and definitely no tie.
Lugo is under pressure to make changes fast, but analysts don't expect him to govern with sudden decrees like the continent's hardcore leftists, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. They predict he will seek broad support for reforms, in the style of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's center-leftist president.
Morales, leftist Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Cuban vice president Juan Ramon Machado praised him as an ally as they arrived Thursday in Paraguay.
As for the United States, Lugo has warned that Paraguay won't accept outside meddling in national affairs, but will try to maintain warm relations with Washington.
About the only power Lugo has under Paraguay's constitution to enact change without approval from Congress is the ability to impose a state of emergency. But that's something few expect from the firm opponent of the long and brutal dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, whose rule from 1954 to 1989 was backed by the Colorados.
While Lugo's world view is rooted in leftist liberation theology, he's also known as a consensus-builder, skills that paid off this week when he persuaded the third-place finisher in the presidential race, right-wing retired general Lino Cesar Oviedo, to join his diverse coalition of leftists and conservatives and give him a majority in Congress.
This delicate coalition now gives Lugo's legislative agenda a chance.
Still, experts predict only limited progress on land reform, since wealthy landowners can count on the support of Colorado Party governors, mayors, lawmakers and judges, as well as lawmakers loyal to Oviedo.
Lugo doesn't have Silva's back-room bargaining credentials as a former labor leader, but his alliance with Oviedo shows he understands practical politics, said Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
"He is realizing that sometimes you have to deal with the devil to govern," Shifter said.
The one proposal all parties support persuading Brazil to pay more for cheap electrical power from a massive dam straddling their border depends on Brazil, but that country so far is only willing to provide a loan for badly needed transmission lines.
In a move that suggests he won't manage the economy like Morales or Chavez, Lugo asked austerity-minded former economy minister Dionisio Borda to lead his economic team.
The main question is whether Lugo can guide competing interests into achieving much of anything.
"The optimistic scenario is he won't accomplish much but he will be well regarded and respected by the people as a president who is not corrupt and does not take bribes," said Tatiana Rizova, a Paraguay expert who teaches political science at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.