Paraguay's President Fernando Lugo gives a news conference at the government palace in Asuncion, Paraguay, Thursday, June 21, 2012. The lower house of Paraguay's congress has voted to begin impeachment proceedings against Lugo for his role in a violent eviction, after he was heavily criticized over a land eviction last week that killed 17 people in gunbattles between police and landless farmers in a forest reserve. (AP Photo/Cesar Olmedo)
ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — The lower house of Paraguay's opposition-controlled congress voted Thursday to impeach leftist President Fernando Lugo for his role in a deadly clash involving landless farmers, adding to the South American nation's political turmoil.
Lugo immediately appeared on national television and promised to face a possible impeachment trial "with all its consequences," dismissing rumors that he might resign.
The lower house approved the impeachment trial by a vote of 76-1. The motion now goes to the opposition-controlled Senate, where the trial would be held if approved.
There was no immediate word on when the Senate might vote on whether to impeach Lugo and force him to face what is known here as a "political trial."
On the streets of the Paraguayan capital, opinions about the move were mixed.
"Lugo should finish his mandate and afterward we will elect someone who belongs to us," said Benito Canete, a 68-year-old concierge in an apartment building. "I think that if they get rid of him now it will be bad for the country."
Ana Campuzano, a 42-year-old odontologist, backed the ouster effort. "Lugo should resign, it was bad for him to remain" after the deadly clash, she said. "It's his fault because he doesn't know how to manage things."
Lugo's election in 2008 ended 61 years of rule by the Colorado Party, and he has constantly clashed with Congress, where he has few firm allies. If ousted, Lugo would be replaced by Vice President Federico Franco.
Critics blame Lugo for the violence that erupted last week when police tried to evict about 150 farmers from the 4,900-acre (2,000)-hectare reserve, which is part of a huge estate owned by a Colorado Party politician. Advocates for the farmers say the landowner used political influence to get the land from the state decades ago, and say it should have been put it to use for land reform.
Seventeen people died in the clash.
Lugo, 63, has expressed sorrow at the confrontation and accepted the resignations of his interior minister and his chief of police.
Paraguay is the world's No. 4 supplier of soybeans and land disputes have risen in recent years as farmers seek more land to grow the crop, which is the country's top export earner.
Lugo, who resigned as a Catholic bishop to run for the presidency, had promised farmland for 87,000 landless families. But as he nears the end of his term next year, he has failed to deliver, partly because his programs have been blocked in the legislature.
Lugo was once known as the "bishop of the poor," and his election was part of South America's leftward swing.
Lugo is still backed by some farmworker groups, including several whose leaders said they wanted to travel to the capital to demonstrate their support.
On Thursday, Lugo urged lawmakers to do all they can to avoid an impeachment trial, warning that it could be resisted by many citizens who back him and that it could put them on the wrong side of history.
Paraguay's land ownership problems stretch back nearly 140 years to a war Paraguay lost to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Saddled with crushing war debt, Paraguay began selling off government holdings that amounted to 95 percent of the country, with the most fertile parcels going to political cronies.
Privatizations accelerated under the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and into the early 1990s, when about 17 million acres (7 million hectares) ended up in the hands of just 1,877 people, according to a 2004 government study.