The economist Santiago Peña, the candidate of the Colorado party (conservative), in power for seven decades in Paraguay, won the presidential election on Sunday over his main center-left rival who denounced the country's endemic corruption.
Santiago Peña, 44, a former IMF official, ex-finance minister of President Horacio Cartes (2013-2018) implicated by the United States for corruption, was declared the winner by the electoral tribunal, with more than 42% of the vote, against 27.5% for Mr. Alegre, according to 98% of the votes counted.
Shortly before the officialization of the result, Santiago Peña had proclaimed his victory, promising the Paraguayans to "banish the fatalism that condemns us to our present. We are masters of our destiny, of our future."
For weeks, the polls had given Santiago Peña and his rival Efrain Alegre in a rare neck and neck for Paraguay, where Colorado has dominated political life almost continuously for 76 years, except for a brief parenthesis on the left under Fernando Lugo. between 2008 and 2012. Several analysts spoke of an "unpredictable" scenario.
An "anti-system" candidate, Paraguayo Cubas, with a virulent anti-parliamentary and anti-official rhetoric, is in 3rd position with more than 22%. "He took votes from both sides, but the most aggrieved are the opponents of the Concertacion" of Alegre, analyzed for AFP the political analyst Roberto Codas.
Santiago Peña was running for the first time in a national election. In 2018, he was defeated in the Colorado primaries by the current head of state, Mario Abdo Benitez. The outgoing president cannot run for immediate re-election, and Santiago Peña will succeed him in August for five years.
"No democracy without bread", promised Sunday evening Santiago Peña who knows that 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, and better access to public health, stricken.
And in the "Bañado sur", one of these regularly flooded slums on the banks of the Paraguay River in Asuncion, residents told AFP this week of their lack of interest in the ballot, for lack of "serious proposal for the poor".
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 patronage "mafia" of Colorado "linked to organized crime", a system now "collapsed", according to him.
Corruption weighed on the election, in a country ranked 137th out of 180 in the NGO Transparency International's corruption perception ranking. And his shadow is not about to let go of the young president.
Santiago Peña had to fend off the stigma associated with his close 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 now kills: a prosecutor, an anti-drug mayor and a journalist were murdered in 2022.
Sunday evening, in proclaiming his victory, Santiago Peña was displayed at length alongside Horacio Cartes, still president of Colorado, thanking him warmly for this "great victory".
In a 90% Catholic country, with a strong Guarani influence (official Amerindian language, like Spanish), Santiago Peña and 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", assumes to AFP Santiago Peña, presenting himself as the guarantor of traditions and family, in the face of a "dehumanized" world.
Light years away from the concerns of the Paraguayans, the election will also have a marginal geopolitical impact.
Santiago Peña said he will once again move 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 welcome a rapprochement with China.