Paraguayans voted yesterday in a presidential election that could return the centre-right Colorado Party to power less than a year after the nation’s first leftist leader was impeached. Millionaire businessman Horacio Cartes, 56, is the Colorado Party candidate and front-runner in the race, most polls show.
A political novice, he vows to reform his party, which was tainted by corruption during its 60-year reign through 2008. His main rival is Efrain Alegre, 50, a lawyer and career politician in the ruling centre-right Liberal Party, which took over the presidency after withdrawing support for President Fernando Lugo and clearing the way for his impeachment in June.
Congress ousted Lugo, a leftist and former Roman Catholic bishop, after finding him guilty of mishandling a botched land eviction that killed 17 police officers and peasant farmers.
Some of Paraguay’s neighbours likened the two-day trial to a coup and imposed diplomatic sanctions on the South American nation.
“I think the new government’s priority has to be education and also the economy ... and they should steal less,” Marcela, a 30-year-old teacher who declined to give last name, said after voting in an upper-middle class section of the capital Asuncion.
Nearly 40% of Paraguay’s 6.6mn people are poor. The landlocked country relies on soybean and beef exports, but is also notorious for contraband trade and illicit financing.
One of Paraguay’s wealthiest men, Cartes primarily made his fortune in the financial and tobacco industries. Rivals have tried to link him to drug running and money laundering, but he has never been charged with those crimes.
“The accusations made during this campaign have no truth to them, and personally I am very serene,” Cartes told reporters early yesterday.
Brash and outspoken, Cartes won support for his candidacy even though he never voted before joining the Colorado Party four years ago.
Alegre, a more sombre politician, led corruption probes in Congress. But his reputation as an honest administrator has been undermined by an investigation into whether he misappropriated state funds while serving as Lugo’s public works minister. “My leadership model is different from the traditional one. My project represents a ‘decent Paraguay’ versus the ‘Paraguay of the mafias,’” Alegre said in a recent interview.
Polls opened from 7am to 4pm (1100-2000 GMT). International observers said they received no fraud complaints by midday. There is no second round of balloting so the candidate who captures the most votes wins. Voters also will elect local officials and members of Congress, with the left expected to gain seats in the divided legislature.
Paraguay’s current President, Federico Franco, is barred by the constitution from running for re-election even though he is just serving out what remained of Lugo’s five-year term. He will hand over the presidency in August. Political instability has plagued Paraguay in the past and fears often arise that the election results could be disputed.
“I hope there’s not much trouble and that democracy truly reigns today. I hope we don’t fight each other because we have to vote in democracy and whoever gets the most votes should win,” Diana Ayala said as she went to vote.
Paraguay will have a centre-right government regardless of whether the Colorados or Liberals win, bucking the trend in South America where leftists have made steady gains in recent years. Only Colombia and Chile are ruled by conservatives.
The leftist bloc is especially strong in the Mercosur trade group, whose members include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Mercosur suspended Paraguay after Lugo’s impeachment and brought in socialist Venezuela, even though its inclusion was never approved by Paraguay’s Congress. Both Cartes and Alegre have said they would push for Paraguay’s full return to Mercosur.
The country’s economy hinges largely on crop weather. It is seen growing 13% this year after a severe drought caused a contraction in 2012, according to central bank forecasts. Land conflicts have intensified in recent years and clashes occasionally break out between squatters and big landowners, including Brazilian soy farmers who live in Paraguay.
Cartes and Alegre promise to carry out agrarian reform, and they want to attract up to $2.7bn in private capital to refurbish Paraguay’s airports and build new highways. They also have vowed to improve operations at state-run companies and modernise the bloated state bureaucracy, which employs about 10% of all workers.