| ASUNCION, April 21
ASUNCION, April 21 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
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
"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
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
"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
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