Conservative tipped to win Paraguay presidential poll

Asuncion (AFP) –


In power for almost all of the past seven decades, Paraguay's conservative Colorado party appears to be heading for a new victory in Sunday's presidential poll, with its candidate the frontrunner despite his father's ties to the dictatorship.

In this landlocked country, one of the poorest in Latin America which has been blighted by corruption and drug trafficking, some 4.2 million voters are heading to the polls on Sunday to cast their vote for one of two presidential candidates.

They will also be voting for a new parliament, with both the head of state and his lawmakers serving for a five-year term.

Polling stations will open at 7:00 am (1100 GMT) and close nine hours later, with the first results due out an hour later.

Leading in the polls is Colorado's 46-year-old candidate Mario Abdo Benitez, better known as "Marito" who has a lead of up to 20 percentage points on his 55-year-old rival, Efrain Alegre, who represents the left-leaning GANAR coalition.

As frontrunner, Abdo Benitez has campaigned on plans to reform the judicial system which he has accused of corruption in a country which was ranked 135 out of 180 in Transparency International's 2017 survey.

But aside from that, this former president of the Senate who has a degree in marketing has merely pledged to keep in step with the same economic policies of outgoing President Horacio Cartes.

For the most part, that means focusing on Paraguay's strengths as a major exporter of soy, beef and hydroelectric power, which have kept growth at an average of around four percent for the past decade.

And his popularity appears to prove voters are unworried by his family history -- for "Marito" is the son of Mario Abdo, who was the personal secretary of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled the country with an iron-fist from 1954 to 1989.

- Young electorate -

A key factor in this year's election is the age of the voters, with almost half of them under 35, according to analyst Elizabeth Gonzalez of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a Washington-based think tank.

"This year, 43 percent of the electorate will be 18?34 years old, most of whom won't have a personal connection to the years of the dictatorship," she wrote in a paper on Sunday's vote.

"This makes them less likely to have a strong affiliation to either the Colorado Party or the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, the largest member of GANAR."

Despite Colorado's long legacy, Alegre, who is a lawyer, is hoping to repeat the success of Fernando Lugo who in 2008 became the first president elected who was not from the conservative party.

But he only lasted four years, ousted by the Senate in 2012 for dereliction of duty following his handling of a land dispute that left 17 people dead.

And Alegre, who is making his second bid for the presidency, has gathered around him the same center-left coalition which swept Lugo to power.

- Lacks Lugo's charisma -

But analysts say he lacks Lugo's charisma and his magnetism, taking only 39 percent of the votes when he ran against Cartes in 2013.

"Alegre belongs to a powerful branch of the Liberal party but he is not an undisputed leader," explained Magdalena Lopez, an expert on Paraguay at the University of Buenos Aires.

"The Liberals were part of the movement who removed Lugo from office but this time, they have realized that if they don't go (into this election) as a coalition, they won't get even close to Abdo Benitez," she said.

Concerned by the country's poverty rate which is hovering around 26.4 percent, according to 2017 figures, Alegre has pledged to offer free healthcare for the poorest and to slash the cost of electricity bills.

In a country with a large community of Guarani Indians -- their language is one of Paraguay's two official tongues alongside Spanish -- there remain huge inequalities, with some 92 percent of the agricultural land held by just 10 percent of the population, Lopez says.