Paraguay Elects a New President: What You Need to Know

Paraguay, the landlocked country with seven million inhabitants in central South America, will elect a new president on Sunday. The vote will test the strength of the swing to the left in Latin America in recent years.

Opposition challengers have won the last 16 free presidential elections in Latin America, and six of the region’s seven largest countries have elected left-wing leaders since 2018.

Now it remains to be seen whether this trend can hold in Paraguay, perhaps South America’s most conservative nation, struggling with deep poverty, a faltering economy and entrenched corruption.

The conservative Colorado Party is trying to keep its grip on the country it has controlled for all but five of the past 76 years, including four decades of military dictatorship.

But this dominance now seems in danger. Colorado incumbent President Mario Abdo Benítez is barred from running again because of term limits — and polls show he’s one of Latin America’s most disliked leaders for his handling of the pandemic. The Colorado Party will be represented in the elections by Paraguay’s former finance minister.

In January, the US government imposed financial sanctions on Colorado Party leader former President Horacio Cartes, accusing him of bribing himself to power. The sanctions have made the party’s funding more difficult.

Some recent polls have shown that the leading opposition candidate – a Conservative who still stands to the left of the Colorado Party contender – has a narrow lead.

The election, which also includes congressional, regional and local seats, included a debate over diplomatic ties with China and Taiwan, the promise of a prison built specifically for corrupt politicians, and a late dynamic for a far-right candidate who is turning has pledged to dissolve Congress and enact military rule.

Polling stations are open Sunday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, with results expected within hours after polling stations close. Candidates need a simple majority to be elected.

Here’s what you need to know.

Colorado candidate Santiago Peña, 44, is Paraguay’s former finance minister, a former International Monetary Fund economist in Washington and the protégé of Mr. Cartes, the ex-president facing sanctions.

While the Colorado Party has often based its support on socially conservative policies, Mr. Peña has described himself as the new generation of the party, more focused on economics. He has promised to create 500,000 jobs, offer free kindergartens, cut gas and energy prices and get more police officers onto the streets.

In an interview, he said he would pay for those promises by expanding the economy and thus tax revenues by cutting bureaucracy.

Leading opposition candidate Efraín Alegre, 60, is a conservative lawyer and former congressman who leads a broad coalition of dozens of political parties, ranging from the extreme left to the religious right, that have banded together to oust the Colorados. Sunday is his third attempt for the nation’s highest office. In 2018, he received just 96,000 votes — or 4 percent of the total — from the presidency.

The son of a bus driver and a preacher from rural Paraguay, Mr Alegre has tried to present himself as an everyman and has promised to avoid the presidential residence if elected.

He has built his campaign on a promise to root out the “mafia,” which he said controls Paraguay. He has also promised to relegate corrupt politicians to a new jail in a dry, remote northern region and pay for free medicines, recovering what he says is $2 billion embezzled by the Colorados every year.

“It’s not just about making a change, it’s about recovering what was stolen and giving it back to the people,” he said in an interview on Friday.

While Mr. Peña and Mr. Alegre have led the polls, Paraguayo Cubas, 61, an eccentric anti-corruption firefighter, has been gaining momentum in recent polls.

Mr. Cubas is a far-right former senator who was expelled from Congress after physically confronting fellow lawmakers and kicking a police car. He had previously made headlines for flogging a judge with his belt and then defecating in the judge’s office. He has conducted his campaign primarily on social media, branding Congress a “den of bandits” and proposing to rule as a dictator.

Analysts are skeptical Mr Cubas has a path to the presidency. Instead, they said, he could take votes from Mr. Alegre and give victory to the Colorado party.

Mr. Cartes, 66, left the presidency in 2018 but is still perhaps Paraguay’s most powerful man. In addition to leading the Colorado Party, he has financial interests in cigarette factories, banks, pharmacies, television stations, newspapers and a football club.

In January, the US Treasury Department locked him and his companies out of the US financial system, claiming he had ties to the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah and had spent millions of dollars to tighten his grip on the government. Mr Cartes has denied the allegations.

The financial sanctions made it difficult for the Colorado Party to raise funds and presented Mr. Peña with a political dilemma.

In an interview, Mr Peña said the allegations were Mr Cartes’ “personal responsibility” and did not reflect either the party or him. “I am my own person,” he said. Just last week, the two men stood together on stage.

Mr Alegre has echoed the allegations against Mr Cartes, calling him the “Paraguayan Pablo Escobar”.

crime: Paraguay, which has long been a haven for drug dealers, has been rocked by a string of high-profile killings. In one case, a federal prosecutor investigating drug cartels was shot dead by gunmen on jet skis next to his pregnant wife on a Colombian beach while he was on his honeymoon.

The economy: Paraguay has been one of the Latin American nations most devastated by the pandemic, and its economy has shrunk over the past year. A quarter of the population lives in poverty, many roads are still unpaved and hospitals lack basic medicines. Tax rates are among the lowest in the region.

Taiwan: Paraguay is part of a rapidly shrinking club of 13 countries, mostly small island nations, that have ties with Taiwan rather than China. The friendship between Paraguay and Taiwan established by their dictators in 1957 remains strong. Taiwan paid for Paraguay’s modernist convention building and provided its presidential jet. But Paraguay’s farmers face obstacles in exporting soybeans and beef to China. Mr Alegre has said he will re-examine the relationship, which has angered US officials. Mr. Peña is committed to maintaining the status quo.

The dam: Whoever dons the presidential sash on August 15 will also face a crucial negotiation over Itaipu, a colossal dam shared with Brazil. Under a 1973 deal, Paraguay will sell its surplus energy from the dam to Brazil at rock-bottom prices. But the treaty expires in August, opening the door to a transformational deal for the poorer country.

Polls show a neck-and-neck race between Mr. Peña and Mr. Alegre, with each candidate topping some polls. (Paraguayan pollsters have a history of being inaccurate. In 2018, polls grossly overestimated support for the Colorado candidate.)

AtlasIntel, a Brazilian pollster, said according to a recent online poll of 2,320 Paraguayans, Mr. Alegre led with 34 percent, Mr. Peña with 33 percent, and Mr. Cubas with 23 percent. The margin of error was two percentage points. The biggest surprise of the poll was the support for Mr. Cubas.

In interviews in the capital Asuncion on Friday, Paraguayans said they were frustrated with the corruption and the country’s direction, but were divided over who the right person was to change them.

Juana Salinas, 74, waited for the bus outside a market, with a black cane and a garbage bag full of food containers for sale. She said she supports Mr. Peña because, like her late parents, she always voted for Colorado. “Always because I will not dishonor my father and mother,” she said. “My father is Colorado, my mother is Colorado.”

At the market, Cynthia Acosta, 29, packaged dried corn kernels that customers typically use to make chipa guasú, or Paraguayan cornbread. She said she wanted to vote for Mr Alegre again because she liked his plans to create jobs for young people.

“There are many things that need to change,” she said. “It’s not an easy job for anyone.”

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