The country's constitution prohibits re-election. Photograph: (Reuters)
They were protesting a secret vote by the Senate that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election
Protesters stormed and set fire to Paraguay's Congress on Friday after the Senate secretly voted for a constitutional amendment that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election, a change that will also require approval by the House.
The country's constitution has prohibited re-election since it was passed in 1992 after a brutal dictatorship fell in 1989.
"A coup has been carried out. We will resist and we invite the people to resist with us," said Senator Desiree Masi from the opposition Progressive Democratic Party.
Television images showed protesters breaking windows of the Congress and clashing with police, burning tires and removing parts of the fences surrounding the building. Police in riot gear responded by lobbing tear gas and firing rubber bullets.
Several politicians and journalists were injured, local media reported, and Interior Minister Tadeo Rojas said many police were hurt.
Cartes called for calm and a rejection of violence in a statement released on Twitter.
"Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic," he said.
The number of casualties was unknown. Several people were inside Congress as the flames spread and television images showed firefighters arriving on foot to fight the blaze concentrated on the first floor of the building.
The unrest coincides with a rare high-level international event in the landlocked South American country. Thousands of businessmen and government officials descended on the capital city of Asuncion this week for the Inter-American Development Bank's annual board of governors meeting.
While Paraguay long suffered from political uncertainty, the soy and beef-exporting nation has been attracting investment in agriculture and manufacturing sectors in recent years as Cartes offered tax breaks to foreign investors. Instability in the country of 6.8 million is a concern for its much larger neighbors Brazil and Argentina.
The Senate voted earlier on Friday during a special session in a closed office in Congress rather than on the Senate floor. Twenty-five lawmakers voted for the measure, two more than the 23 required for passage in the 45-member upper chamber.
Opponents of the measure, who claim it would weaken Paraguay's democratic institutions, said the vote was illegal.
The proposal goes to the House, where it appeared to have strong support. A vote expected to take place early on Saturday was called off until the situation calmed down, said the chamber's president, Hugo Velazquez.
"I call for calm," Velazquez said. "Tomorrow we will not take any decision; we will not hold a session."
Several Latin American countries, including Paraguay, Peru and Chile, prevent presidents from running for consecutive terms in a region where the memories of military dictatorships remain ripe.
Others, including Colombia and Venezuela, have changed their constitutions to give sitting presidents a chance at re-election.
Paraguay's measure would apply to future presidents and Cartes, a soft-drink and tobacco mogul elected to a five-year term in 2013.
His strongest backers want him to be allowed to run for another term next year, but critics of the measure have said a constitutional change aimed at benefiting a sitting president would be unfair.
The change would also apply to former President Fernando Lugo, whose supporters want to be allowed to run for another term. Congress voted to oust Lugo in 2012 saying he had failed in his duty to maintain social order following a bloody land eviction. The rapid impeachment drew strong criticism in Latin America, especially from fellow leftist governments.
A similar re-election proposal had been rejected in August and Congress this week voted to change the rules that required lawmakers to wait a year before voting again.
"Everything was done legally," said Senator Carlos Filizzola of the leftist Guasu Front coalition, which supports the constitutional amendment as a way of allowing Lugo to return as Paraguay's leader.