Wealthy Political Novice the Favorite to Win Paraguayan Presidency

Sunday, 21 Apr 2013 09:49 AM

 

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ASUNCION, Paraguay — Paraguayans began voting on Sunday in a presidential election that could return the center-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 center-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 neighbors likened the two-day trial to a coup and imposed diplomatic sanctions on the South American nation.

"They're all the same to me, the Colorados, the Liberals, Lugo's people. I used to have faith in politicians but I don't anymore. What we need is jobs and they promise that but never deliver," said Evelia Benitez, a 38-year-old street vendor in the capital Asuncion.

Nearly 40 percent of Paraguay's 6.6 million 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 convicted of a crime and denies any wrongdoing.

"The accusations made during this campaign have no truth to them, and personally I am very serene," Cartes told reporters early on Sunday.

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 somber 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 told Reuters in a recent interview.

Polls opened Sunday morning. 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 told Reuters Television as she went to vote.

Paraguay will have a center-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 percent 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 $2.7 billion in private capital to refurbish Paraguay's airports and build new highways.

They also have vowed to improve operations at state-run companies and modernize the bloated state bureaucracy, which employs about 10 percent of all workers.

© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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