ASUNCIÓN – Paraguayans voted overwhelmingly to keep the long-ruling Colorado Party in power for five more years, support their presidential nominee and give them majorities in both houses of Congress.
Santiago Peña, a 44-year-old economist, had 43% of the vote in a preliminary count of Sunday’s election, with nearly all polling stations reported. That was well ahead of the 27% of his closest challenger, Efraín Alegre of the Pact for a New Paraguay, a broad-based opposition coalition formed to end Colorado’s seven-decade long rule of power.
The conservative Colorado Party also performed strongly in other races, winning 15 of the 17 gubernatorial elections running and winning majorities in both the Senate and the House of Commons.
The opposition coalition led by Alegre had been optimistic it would win votes amid widespread discontent over high levels of corruption and failures in the health and education systems that have been the focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a significant number of non-Colorado voters instead backed Paraguayo Cubas, a right-wing populist maverick who garnered 23% of the vote with a strong anti-establishment message, a larger proportion than expected.
There were 13 candidates in total, but Paraguay does not require a presidential candidate to receive more than 50% of the vote, and whoever receives the most votes wins.
Peña put on a show that on August 15 will make him Paraguay’s youngest president since democracy returned in 1989.
“Today we are not celebrating a personal triumph, we are celebrating the victory of a people who, with their vote, have chosen the path of social peace, dialogue, fraternity and national reconciliation,” Peña told a crowd of supporters on Sunday evening. “Long live Paraguay! Long live the Colorado party!”
Alegre acknowledged defeat soon after.
“Today, the results suggest that our efforts may not have been enough,” Alegre told reporters, adding that divisions in the opposition “have prevented us from achieving the goal of bringing about the change that the majority of Paraguayans are demanding.” from us.”
The first to congratulate the President-elect was outgoing President Mario Abdo Benítez. “Congratulations to the Paraguayan people for their great participation in this electoral process and to President-elect Santiago Peña,” he said on social media. “We will work to initiate an orderly and transparent transition that strengthens our institutions and the country’s democracy.”
Ahead of the vote, analysts had forecast a close battle for the presidency, saying Alegre could stand a chance of dethroning South America’s longest-ruling party, which has essentially ruled Paraguay uninterrupted since 1947.
But many voters preferred to stick with the familiar, an unusual turn of events in a region where incumbents have not fared well in recent elections.
“An unexpected result, very unexpected. I think even Colorado Party members are shocked by such a large spread,” said political adviser Sebastián Acha. “It gives him tremendous legitimacy because of the size of the difference and that makes Peña’s win undeniable.”
The results also appeared to be a victory for former President Horacio Cartes, who ruled from 2013 to 2018, and whom the US State Department recently accused of involvement in “substantive corruption” and ties to terrorism. He has denied the allegations, while Peña called them “baseless.”
Cartes, a local magnate who is also president of the Colorado Party, is a powerful figure in Paraguayan politics and members of the opposition had designated Peña to front Cartes in an attempt to seize power.
Cartes stood next to Peña as he delivered his speech on Sunday night.
“I want to be a tool for you,” Cartes said to Peña. “I want you to be assured that the Colorado Party will be your best tool.”
Peña was finance minister in the Cartes government and until recently a board member of Banco Basa, a local bank owned by the former president.
The US Embassy released a statement on social media congratulating Peña. “We will continue to work together to strengthen our excellent bilateral relationship and promote transparency and inclusive democracy,” she added.
The election in the country of nearly 7 million also had geopolitical implications, as Paraguay is the only remaining country in South America to have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and those ties became an issue in the election campaign.
Alegre had called for a review of the landlocked country’s relations with Taiwan, saying they were too costly. Peña defended Paraguay’s ties with Taipei but said he would seek more trade with China, without explaining how that would come about.
“We have had a diplomatic and historic relationship with Taiwan for more than 60 years, based on principles and democratic values that we believe are fundamental to a society like Paraguay,” Peña said.
The Taiwan Embassy posted a message on social media congratulating “President-Elect” Peña.
“Congratulations to the Paraguayan people who, through their votes, have shown the world the democratic power of citizens,” the embassy said.
Brazil’s left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also congratulated Peña.
“Good luck with your mandate,” the Brazilian wrote on social media. “We will work together for even better and stronger relations between our countries and for a South America with more unity, development and prosperity.”
Alegre, a lawyer who leads the Liberal Party, the second largest political force in Congress, was running for the presidency for the third time, although this time he represented a mix of political parties.
Peña’s presidential campaign has been hampered by US sanctions against Cartes over alleged bribery and ties to Hezbollah, which Washington describes as a terrorist group. The sanctions blocked Cartes from the US financial system and cut off funding and credit for the party’s campaign.
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