Paraguayans go to the polls in a landmark presidential election in which Fernando Lugo, a 56-year-old former bishop, is a frontrunner against a divided right. Report by S. Carpentier et J-F. Maurel in Asuncion.
Paraguay votes Sunday in a landmark presidential election in which a woman is competing for the first time but polls indicate the favorite is a suspended Catholic bishop.
Voters will also select a new congress in the relatively new democracy, which emerged from a 35-year military dictatorship in 1989 and elected its first civilian president in 1993.
The winner of the presidential poll will replace outgoing President Nicanor Duarte who constitutionally cannot seek re-election after serving a five-year term.
Fernando Lugo, a 56-year-old former bishop suspended by the Vatican for his bid to take over from Duarte, is seen as the frontrunner.
"We are going to win," a confident Lugo told reporters Friday.
Lugo represents the opposition Patriotic Alliance for Change, and is an avowed admirer of Latin American leftwing firebrands Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia and their programs to empower the poor.
However the race has been close, with opponents Blanca Ovelar, 51, a former education minister, and Lino Oviedo, 64, a retired army chief who helped stage a coup, mounting a serious challenge.
The latest polls show Lugo is favored by 34 percent of voters, while Ovelar has 28.5 percent and Oviedo 29 percent. There is no runoff vote.
Ovelar, the anointed candidate for the conservative Colorado Party which has ruled Paraguay for the past six decades, this week asked voters to show her the same consideration as her male counterparts.
"If I lose the election, I will accept the result. But I ask for the same openness and the same objectivity as the other candidates," she said.
Oviedo, who helped overthrow dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989 and who has spent much of the past decade in and out of military prisons, told AFP he was optimistic of a "triumph."
Oviedo was released from his last stint behind bars last September by a court that found he had been the victim of political persecution, leaving him able to pursue his long-held ambition of becoming head-of-state.
Political analyst Francisco Capli said that despite the closeness of the race, Lugo was likely to cling to his advantage.
"Lugo has had a five point lead over the others for three months," Capli said. "He could win."
Polls open at 7 am (11H00 GMT) at 14,800 voting stations around the country. Up to 18 percent of the 2.8 million strong population of Paraguay is estimated to live outside the country, and cannot vote.
Of the issues the next president will face, corruption in the tiny Latin American state is the most pressing.
Duarte made little headway in stamping out that problem, which also sullied his own administration. Paraguay today also remains a source of contraband electronics and cigarettes, most smuggled into neighboring Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.
"Even the Colorados have had enough of seeing the same clique filling their own pockets," said a 55-year-old businessman who asked that his name not be published.
"In my family, we are all for the Colorado Party, but this time we are voting for Lugo."
Opposition figures have said they feared fraud would mar the vote.
But the outgoing president scoffed at that claim early this month, saying the press was biased toward the opposition and was playing up the allegations.
Juan Manuel Morales, the head of the electoral commission, also dismissed the fraud claims and vowed the polls would be "absolutely transparent."
Voting will be subject to scrutiny from 70 observers from the Organization of American States led by Colombian former foreign minister Ema Mejia.
The director of the electoral registry, Jorge Acosta, predicted turnout of around 72 percent.
mission chief Maria Emma Mejia told reporters.
Date created : 2008-04-20