Paraguay chooses a new president: what you need to know

Paraguay, a landlocked country of seven million people in the heart of South America, elects a new president on Sunday. The vote will test the strength of the shift to the left in Latin America in recent years.

Opposition Pretenders won the last 16 freely held presidential elections in Latin America, and six of the seven largest countries in the region have elected left-wing leaders since 2018.

It will now be seen if this trend will continue in Paraguay, arguably South America’s most staunchly conservative country, which is battling deep poverty, a collapsing economy and entrenched corruption.

The Colorado Conservative Party is seeking to retain control of the country, which it has controlled in all but five of the past 76 years, including four decades of military dictatorship.

But now that dominance is under threat. Colorado incumbent Mario Abdo Benítez is unable to run again due to term limits – and polls show he is one of Latin America’s most unpopular leaders because of his handling of the pandemic. The Colorado Party will be represented by the former Finance Minister of Paraguay.

In January the US government imposed financial sanctions on the leader of the Colorado Party, former President Horacio Cartes, accusing him of bribing his way to power. The sanctions made it difficult to finance the party.

Some recent polls have shown that the leading opposition candidate – a conservative who is still to the left of the Colorado candidate – holds a slight lead.

The election, which also covers congressional seats, regional and local bodies, included debates about diplomatic relations with China and Taiwan, promises of a prison built specifically for corrupt politicians, and a belated push for a far-right candidate who promised dissolve Congress and introduce military rule.

Polling stations are open from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm ET Sunday, with results expected within hours of the polls closing. Candidates must be elected by a simple majority vote.

Here’s what you need to know.

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

While the Colorado party has often based its support on socially conservative politics, Mr. Peña is positioning itself as a new generation of the party even more focused on the economy. He promised to create 500,000 jobs, offer free day care, lower fuel and energy prices, and get more police officers out on the streets.

In an interview, he said that he would pay for these promises by expanding the economy, and therefore tax revenue, by eliminating bureaucracy.

The leading opposition candidate, Efrain Alegre, 60, a conservative lawyer and former congressman, leads a broad coalition of dozens of political parties, from the far left to the religious right, that have banded together to oust Colorado. Sunday is his third attempt at the country’s top post. In 2018, he won just 96,000 votes – or 4 percent of the total – from the presidency.

The son of a bus driver and preacher from rural Paraguay. Alegre sought to present himself as an ordinary person, promising to give up the presidential residence if elected.

He built his campaign on a promise to root out the “mafia” he says controls Paraguay. He also promised to send corrupt politicians to a new prison in the arid, remote region of the north and pay for free medicines, repaying what he says is the $2 billion annually embezzled by Colorado.

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

While Peña and Alegre lead the polls, 61-year-old Paraguayo Cubas, an eccentric corruption fighter, is gaining momentum in the latest polls.

Mister. Cubas is a former far-right senator who was expelled from Congress after fighting other lawmakers and kicking a police car. He previously drew headlines for hitting a judge with a belt and then defecating in the judge’s office. He ran his campaign primarily on social media, calling Congress a “cave of bandits” and suggesting that he would rule as a dictator.

Analysts doubt that G. Cubas has a path to the presidency. Instead, they say, he can take the votes away from Mr. Alegre and hand over the victory to the Colorado party.

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

In January, the US Treasury removed him and his companies from the US financial system, saying he was linked to the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah and provided millions of dollars to consolidate his grip on the government. Mister. Karts denied the allegations.

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

In an interview, Mr. Peña said the allegations were against Mr. Cartes’ “personal responsibility” and did not reflect him or the party. “I’m on my own,” he said. The two men were still appearing on stage together last week.

Mister. Alegre seized on the allegations against Mr. Cartes, calling him “the Paraguayan Pablo Escobar.”

Crime: Paraguay, which has long been a haven for drug dealers, shocked by a series of high-profile murders. In one case, a federal prosecutor investigating drug cartels was shot and killed by assassins on a jet ski while on his honeymoon next to his pregnant wife on a Colombian beach.

Economy: Paraguay was one of the Latin American countries hardest hit by the pandemic, and its economy contracted last year. A quarter of the population lives in poverty, many roads are yet to be paved, 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 states, that have relations with Taiwan rather than China. The Paraguayan-Taiwan friendship signed by their dictators in 1957 remains strong. Taiwan paid for Paraguay’s modernist Congress building and provided the presidential aircraft. But as a result, Paraguayan farmers face barriers to exporting soybeans and beef to China. Mister. Alegre said he would reconsider the relationship, which would upset US officials. Mister. Peña promised to maintain the status quo.

Dam: The one who puts on the presidential belt on August 2. The 15th will also have important negotiations over Itaipu, the colossal hydroelectric power plant it shares with Brazil. Under a 1973 agreement, Paraguay sells excess energy from the dam to Brazil at rock bottom prices. But the deal expires in August, opening the door to a transformational deal for the poorer country.

Polls show that between Mr. Peña and Mr. Alegre, each candidate conducted several polls. (Public opinion polls in Paraguay have historically been inaccurate. In 2018, polls grossly overestimated support for the Colorado candidate.)

AtlasIntel, a Brazilian sociologist, said that according to a recent online voting out of 2,320 Paraguayans, Alegre led with 34 percent, Mr. U Peña had 33 percent, and Mr. Cuba had 23 percent. The margin of error was two percentage points. The biggest surprise of the poll was the level of support for Mr. Cuba.

In an interview in the country’s capital Asuncion on Friday, Paraguayans said they were frustrated with the country’s corruption and direction, but they disagreed over who should make a difference.

Juana Salinas, 74, was waiting for a bus outside the market with a black cane and a trash bag full of food containers to sell. She said she supported G. Peña because she always voted for Colorado, as did her late parents. “Always, because I’m not going to dishonor my father and mother,” she said. “My father is from Colorado, my mother is from Colorado.”

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

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