Rich political novice the favorite to win Paraguayan presidency

ASUNCION, April 21 Sun Apr 21, 2013 12:59am EDT

ASUNCION, April 21 (Reuters) - Paraguayans go to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that could return the center-right Colorado Party to power less than a year after the nation's leftist leader was impeached.

Millionaire businessman Horacio Cartes, 56, is the Colorado Party candidate and front-runner in the race, most polls show. A political novice, he vows to reform his party, which was tainted by corruption during its 60-year reign through 2008.

His main rival is Efrain Alegre, a 50-year-old lawyer and career politician in the ruling center-right Liberal Party, which took over the presidency after withdrawing support for President Fernando Lugo and clearing the way for his impeachment in June.

Congress ousted Lugo, a leftist and former Roman Catholic bishop, after finding him guilty of mishandling a botched land eviction that killed 17 police officers and peasant farmers. Some of Paraguay's neighbors saw the two-day trial as tantamount to a coup and imposed diplomatic sanctions on the South American nation.

"They're all the same to me, the Colorados, the Liberals, Lugo's people. I used to have faith in politicians but I don't anymore. What we need is jobs and they promise that but never deliver," said Evelia Benitez, a 38-year-old street vendor in the capital Asuncion.

Nearly 40 percent of Paraguay's 6.6 million people are poor. Located in the heart of the continent, the country relies on soybean and beef exports, but is also notorious for contraband trade and illicit financing.

One of Paraguay's wealthiest men, Cartes made his fortune in the financial and tobacco industries. Rivals have tried to link him to drug running and money laundering, but he has never been convicted of a crime and denies any wrongdoing.

Brash and outspoken, Cartes won support for his candidacy even though he never voted before joining the Colorado Party in 2009.

Alegre, a more somber politician, led corruption probes in Congress. But his reputation as an honest administrator has been undermined by an investigation into whether he misappropriated state funds while serving as Lugo's public works minister.

Paraguay's current president, Federico Franco, was barred from running in the presidential election under the country's constitution.

"My leadership model is different from the traditional one. My project represents a 'decent Paraguay' versus the 'Paraguay of the mafias,'" Alegre told Reuters in a recent interview.

BUCKING THE TREND

Polls open at 7 a.m. (1100 GMT). There is no second round of balloting so the candidate with the most votes will be declared the winner. Voters also will elect local authorities and members of Congress, with the left expected to gain seats in the divided legislature.

Paraguay will have a center-right government regardless of whether the Colorados or Liberals win, bucking the trend in South America where leftists have made steady gains in recent years. Only Colombia and Chile are ruled by conservatives.

The leftist bloc is especially strong in the Mercosur trade group, whose members include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. Mercosur suspended Paraguay after Lugo's impeachment and brought in socialist Venezuela, even though its inclusion was never approved by Paraguay's Congress.

Both Cartes and Alegre have said they would push for Paraguay's full return to Mercosur.

The country's economy has been on a roller-coaster ride and hinges largely on crop weather. It is expected to grow 13 percent this year after a severe drought caused a contraction in 2012, according to central bank forecasts.

Land conflicts have intensified in recent years and clashes occasionally break out between squatters and big landowners, including Brazilian soy farmers who live in Paraguay.

Cartes and Alegre promise to carry out agrarian reform. They also want to attract up to $2.7 billion in private capital to refurbish Paraguay's airports and build new highways, and they have vowed to improve operations at state-run companies.

They also agree that the bloated state bureaucracy, which employs about 10 percent of all workers, needs to be revamped.

"Both candidates have a 1990s sort of vision about administering the state in the sense that they would privatize or give concessions to the private sector, which goes against the grain of what's happening elsewhere in the region," said Guzman Ibarra, a political analyst at Seeds for Democracy, a non-profit group.

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