Paraguayans vote for president to tackle corruption, poverty
Paraguayans voted Sunday for a president they hope will tackle endemic corruption, crime and poverty in elections with possible consequences for ties with Taiwan and Israel.
A center-left coalition is hoping to end the almost unbroken seven decades in power of the conservative Colorado Party.
But Santiago Pena, a 44-year-old economist and former finance minister, was leading the race with 43 percent of votes with nearly 90 percent of the vote counted.
His Colorado Party has governed almost continually since 1947 — through a dictatorship and since the return of democracy in 1989, but has recently been tainted by corruption claims.
Some 4.8 million of Paraguay’s 7.5 million inhabitants were eligible to elect a president and members of the legislature in nine hours of voting that closed at 4:00 pm local time (2000 GMT).
Voting is compulsory and the outcome is determined in a single round.
Pena’s main challenger was lawyer Efrain Alegre, 60, of the Concertacion center-left coalition, who led narrowly in pre-election opinion polls amid a recent anti-incumbency trend in Latin American elections.
He had 27.5 percent with 87 percent of votes counted.
Though they differ on economic and international policy, the two frontrunners are both socially conservative, holding strong anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stances in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
“We hope the least worse wins. All have their weaknesses,” Marta Fernandez, 29, told AFP after casting her ballot in Asuncion.
Also in the capital, voter 60-year-old Ana Barros said: “You have to have at least hope that there will be less crime. It is what I hope as a mother, that the children can study and have work.”
The results of the election to replace President Mario Abdo Benitez, leaving office after a constitutionally limited single term, should be known within hours.
– ‘Back to Jerusalem’ –
The outcome could have important consequences for Paraguay’s international relations. It is among only 13 countries to recognize Taipei over Beijing.
But Alegre, running his third presidential race, has vowed to reconsider this if he wins, telling AFP: “Relations with Taiwan mean the loss of one of the largest markets, which is China.”
Latin America has been a key diplomatic battleground since China and Taiwan separated in 1949.
China considers self-ruled, democratic Taiwan part of its territory to be retaken one day, and does not allow other countries to recognize both Beijing and Taipei.
Nicaragua shifted its allegiance to Beijing in 2021, as did El Salvador in 2018, Panama in 2017 and Costa Rica in 2007.
Pena, meantime, has said he would retain ties with Taiwan but move Paraguay’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Paraguay had previously moved its embassy in 2018, but reversed its decision within months.
“Yes, I would go back to Jerusalem,” Pena told AFP before the vote.
Moving an embassy to Jerusalem is highly contentious. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital while Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
– ‘Not interested’ –
Alegre repeatedly pointed to corruption in the Colorado Party, which has seen two of its top members hit with US sanctions over alleged graft.
They include Pena’s political mentor, ex-president Horacio Cartes.
Paraguay is ranked 137 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Apart from the shadow of top-level graft, which has angered voters, other election concerns include poverty and an escalating crime problem.
Paraguay’s GDP is expected to grow 4.8 percent in 2023, according to the central bank, and 4.5 percent according to the IMF — one of the highest rates in Latin America.
But poverty plagues about a quarter of the population.
Paraguay’s Indigenous groups and inhabitants of squalid shantytowns feel especially neglected.
Crime is also a concern, with an anti-mafia prosecutor, a crime-fighting mayor and a journalist murdered in 2022 as cartels settle scores.
Experts say landlocked Paraguay — nestled between Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina — has become an important launchpad for drugs headed for Europe.
Originally published as Paraguayans vote for president to tackle corruption, poverty