(Asuncion) Paraguay, torn between economic vitality and endemic corruption, elects its president on Sunday in a particularly undecided ballot that threatens seven decades of right-wing hegemony in Asuncion, and could tip a new South American country to the left .
Santiago Peña, a 44-year-old economist, heir to the Colorado Party (conservative) in power almost continuously for 76 years, and Efrain Alegre, a 60-year-old lawyer at the head of a center-left coalition, are neck and neck , according to the polls. The election is played over a single round.
Behind them, an “anti-system” candidate, Paraguayo Cubas, with a radical, anti-parliamentary discourse, has made a remarkable breakthrough in recent weeks.
There were crowds as soon as the polls opened at 7 a.m., AFP noted. “Let the ballot boxes be a place of harmony,” Mr. Peña asked. Mr. Alegre hailed a strong turnout at midday, according to him “the largest of the last four elections”.
The opponent denounced an incident in a polling station in Yby Pyta (north), near the Brazilian border “in narco territory” where armed men allegedly “held at gunpoint and kidnapped assessors from his training”. Paraguayan police chief Gilberto Fleitas denied this.
A defeat in the more than 100-year-old Colorado would mark another swing to the left for a Latin American country, in line with a so-called “pink wave” over the past five years, which has seen alternations from Mexico to Chile, from Colombia in Brazil.
Social issues and the distribution of wealth were a strong theme of the campaign, in an agro-exporting country with enviable prosperity in Latin America (4.5% growth expected in 2023), but with glaring inequalities (24.7 % poor), and the notoriously weak public health system.
In the “Bañado sur”, one of these slums regularly flooded on the banks of the Paraguay River in Asuncion, residents affirmed this week their disinterest in the ballot, for lack of “serious proposal for the poor”.
But a compact queue did indeed suggest a mobilization of the 12,000 voters in the slum on Sunday, AFP noted. And Victor Hugo Fernandez, local leader, sensed a local victory for the young candidate of the old Colorado party.
Efrain Alegre, once an activist against the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), twice already a candidate for the presidency (2013, 2018), poses as a destroyer of what he calls the Colorado clientelist “mafia” “linked to the organized crime”, a system now “collapsed”, according to him.
Corruption has indeed weighed in the election – the country is 137th out of 180 in the ranking of the perception of corruption by the NGO Transparency International.
Mr. Peña had to defend himself from the stigma associated with his mentor, ex-president (2013-2018) and tobacco tycoon Horacio Cartes, whom Washington in 2022 called “significantly corrupt” and barred from entry or transactions in the United States, yet historically an unwavering ally of Asuncion. The outgoing vice-president suffered the same fate.
Because in a Paraguay with porous borders (landlocked between Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia), a major transit point for Andean cocaine, corruption is rampant, and is now killing: a prosecutor, an anti-drug mayor and a journalist were murdered in 2022 .
In a 90% Catholic country, with a strong Guarani influence (official Amerindian language, like Spanish), the two main rivals come together on societal themes, both opposed to marriage for all and abortion.
“We are a conservative society, it is deeply rooted in us […] and it makes us cautious in the face of major changes in society”, assumes AFP Mr. Peña, who presents himself as the guarantor of traditions and family, in the face of a “dehumanized” world.
Light years away from the concerns of Paraguayans, the election could also have a marginal geopolitical impact.
If elected, Mr. Alegre has indeed indicated that he will “analyze” the future of Asuncion’s relations with Taipei, in the name of the higher commercial interest of a rapprochement with China. Paraguay is one of 13 states in the world – only from South America – that officially recognizes Taiwan.
Mr. Peña, for his part, said he would – again – move the Paraguayan embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President Cartes had already done so in 2018, before his successor Mario Abdo Benitez reconsidered the transfer a few months later.
Nearly 4.8 million voters nominate president, vice-president, deputies, senators, and 17 provincial governors. The results should be known approximately 3 hours after the polls close at 4 p.m. EST.