The economist Santiago Peña, candidate of the Colorado Party (conservative) in power for seven decades in Paraguay, easily won the presidential election on Sunday against a center-left rival, who strongly denounced the endemic corruption of the country.
Mr. Peña, 44, a former IMF official, ex-finance minister of President Horacio Cartes (2013-2018) implicated by the United States for corruption, won with 42.7% of the vote , against 27.4% in Efrain Alegre, after 99.9% of the votes counted by the Electoral Tribunal.
Shortly before the officialization of the result, Mr. Peña proclaimed his victory, promising to "banish the fatalism that condemns us to our present (...) Starting tomorrow, let's start drawing the Paraguay we all want, without flagrant inequalities or injustices social. We have a lot to do".
For weeks, polls had been predicting a tight ballot, rare in Paraguay. Because the "Colorado" has dominated political life there almost without interruption for 76 years, except for a parenthesis on the left under Fernando Lugo (2008 to 2012).
An "anti-system" candidate, Paraguayo Cubas, with a virulent anti-parliamentary rhetoric, is in 3rd place with 22.9%. "He took votes from both sides, but the most injured are the opponents" of the Alegre coalition, political analyst Roberto Codas told AFP.
Colorado's influence is also palpable in the Senate, where with 43% of the vote (23% in the center-left), it will have an absolute majority, as well as in the Chamber of Deputies according to projections based on partial results. . He also won 14 of the 17 provincial governorships.
Mr. Peña was running for the first time in a national ballot. In 2018, he was defeated in the Colorado primaries by the current head of state, Mario Abdo Benitez, who could not stand again. He will succeed him in August for five years.
Poverty will be a challenge of his mandate, in an agro-exporting Paraguay with enviable prosperity in Latin America (4.5% growth expected in 2023), but with glaring inequalities (24.7% poor). He promised the creation of 500,000 jobs, without great detail, and better access to public health, stricken.
For Efrain Alegre, a 60-year-old lawyer, once an activist against the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), it is a third failure in as many candidacies. In vain, he posed as a slayer of what he calls the clientelist "mafia" of Colorado, "linked to organized crime", a system now "collapsed", according to him.
Because corruption weighed on this election, in a country ranked 137th out of 180 in the ranking of the perception of corruption by the NGO Transparency International. And his shadow is not ready to let go of the young president.
Mr. Peña had to fend off the stigma associated with his mentor and active supporter, tobacco tycoon Horacio Cartes. Washington called him "significantly corrupt" in 2022 and banned him from entering or doing business in the United States, a historically staunch ally of Asuncion.
Because in a Paraguay with porous borders (landlocked between Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia), a 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.
Celebrating his victory, Mr. Peña appeared at length alongside Mr. Cartes, still president of the Colorado Party, thanking him warmly for this “great victory”.
In a 90% Catholic country, with Guarani influence (official Amerindian language, like Spanish), Mr. Peña like his rival came together on moral and 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", explained to AFP Mr. Peña, presenting himself as the guarantor of traditions and the family, faced with a "dehumanized" world.
Light years away from the concerns of the Paraguayans, the election will also have a marginal geopolitical impact.
Mr. Peña said he will relocate the Paraguayan embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As President Cartes did in 2018, before his successor reversed the transfer a few months later.
On the other hand, unlike his rival, he assured that he will maintain Asuncion's relations with Taipei - Paraguay is one of the 13 states in the world that officially recognizes Taiwan. Even if Paraguayan business circles would welcome a rapprochement with China.
Taiwan congratulated Peña on Sunday, pledging "to deepen cooperation and exchanges with the new Paraguayan government" on the basis of "shared values such as democracy and freedom and friendship between the two countries".
05/01/2023 16:40:31 - Asuncion (AFP) - © 2023 AFP