Paraguay senators vote in secret to allow presidential re-election

Protestors set fire to the Congress building during a demonstration against a possible change in the law to allow for presidential re-election in Asuncion, Paraguay, March 31, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno

ASUNCION (Reuters) - Violent protests erupted in Paraguay's capital on Friday as the South American country appeared headed for a constitutional crisis after a group of senators voted behind closed doors for a bill that would allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election.

The vote took place during a special session held 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 the country's democratic institutions, said the vote was illegal. Protesters who marched in front of the Congress building in Asuncion were met by police wielding water hoses and firing rubber bullets.

"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.

The demonstrations grew more violent after nightfall, as televised images showed protesters burning tires and removing parts of the fences surrounding the Congress building. Police in riot gear responded by lobbing tear gas at the protesters.

The total number of casualties was unknown, but local media reported that several politicians and journalists were among the injured.

Interior Minister Tadeo Rojas said many police were hurt after being provoked by a small group of protesters.

"The national police were not under any instruction to repress. They were attacked," Rojas said in a press conference broadcast by local television.

The senators have sent the proposal to the House, where it appeared to have strong support. The vote will take place early on Saturday, according to a document posted on the lower chamber's official Twitter account.

If passed by the House, the 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 new law would also apply to former President Fernando Lugo, whose supporters also want to be allowed to run for another term.

"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.

(Reporting by Daniela Desantis, writing by Hugh Bronstein and Luc Cohen; editing by Diane Craft, G Crosse)