ASUNCION, April 30 (Reuters) – Paraguay’s conservative economist Santiago Pena, 44, won the country’s presidential election on Sunday, tightening the political grip of the country’s ruling Colorado Party and allaying fears of an end to diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Pena, who has pledged to maintain Paraguay’s long-standing Taiwan ties, had 42.7% of the vote with 99.9% of the votes counted, more than 15 points ahead of center-left challenger Efrain Alegre, who has advocated switching allegiance to China. .
“Thank you for this Colorado victory, thank you for this Paraguay victory,” Pena said in a speech. Alegre accepted the decision. Current President Mario Abdo congratulated Pena as “President-elect”, as did the leaders of Brazil and Argentina.
Colorado and right-wing candidates also performed strongly in congressional elections and gubernatorial races, with some counties posting historic Colorado majorities over opposition contenders.
The election result leaves Pena with a challenge to revive Paraguay’s farm-driven economy, reduce a large fiscal deficit, fend off growing pressure from soy and beef producers and push Taiwan in favor of China and its big markets.
“After years of economic stagnation, lack of funds, we have a lot to do and the task ahead of us is not for an individual or a party,” Pena said in his victory speech, “calling for unity and consensus. “.
It underscores the dominance of the Colorado party, which has governed for all five of the past 75 years and has a tough campaign machine, even as some voters are disaffected over the economy and allegations of corruption.
“Once a Colorado, always a Colorado,” Eugenio Centurion, 65, said as he cast his vote Sunday at his local polling station in Asuncion’s Jara neighborhood.
Dry weather helped voter turnout, analysts said, with lines to vote long after polling stations formally closed at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT).
“Throughout the day we observed a high level of participation,” said an observer for the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral mission.
‘Nothing Will Change’
Not all voters were happy, however, with populist Paraguayan Cubans getting a bigger-than-expected share, with nearly 23% of the vote, reflecting broad support for anti-establishment candidates around Latin America.
“I worry about crime. All the candidates are the same to me,” said Maria Jose Rodas, a 34-year-old mother of three, as a busload of voters arrived at an inner-city polling station. “Nothing will change.”
At the Mariscal Francisco Solano López school in the capital Asuncion, Ramona Oddone was at the top of her voting line and hopeful of a new direction.
“Look at all the young people participating – it shows that people want change,” the 79-year-old retired school teacher told Reuters. “They need jobs, I want better pensions.”
The Colorado Party has dominated politics in the landlocked South American nation since the 1950s. But its popularity has been plagued by a sluggish economy and allegations of corruption.
The economy, corruption allegations and the candidates’ views on Taiwan dominate the build-up to the election. Paraguay is one of 13 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with the democratically-ruled island, which China considers its territory.
Taiwan’s ambassador in Asuncion conveyed his congratulations to Pena on behalf of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“Based on the shared values of democracy and freedom and the traditional friendship between the two countries, our country will continue to deepen cooperation and exchanges with the new government of Paraguay,” the ministry said.
Alegre criticized those ties, which have made it difficult to sell soy and beef to China, a major global buyer. Pena had said he would maintain ties with Taiwan.
Alegre on Sunday warned against reports of voter interference in the north of the country and said he would “not give in” to efforts to prevent citizen participation.
Ice cream seller Fiorella Moreno, 23, felt none of the candidates gave hope to her generation.
“I don’t want to vote, I feel like everything has collapsed,” he said. “But not voting makes me part of the problem.”
Report by Lucinda Elliott and Daniela Desantis; Additional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Editing by Adam Jordan and Sandra Maler
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