© Reuters. A vehicle drives past an electoral banner, a day before presidential elections, in Lambare, Paraguay April 29, 2023. REUTERS/Cesar Olmedo
By Lucinda Elliott and Daniela Desantis
ASUNCION (Reuters) -Paraguayans began voting on Sunday in what could be the biggest electoral challenge to the ruling conservative Colorado Party in over a decade and with the country’s long ties with Taiwan potentially at stake.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (1100 GMT) in what is expected to be a close contest between Colorado Party presidential candidate Santiago Pena, a 44-year-old economist, and 60-year-old political veteran Efrain Alegre, who is leading a broad center-left coalition and pledging a foreign policy shake-up.
In addition to the single-round winner-takes all presidential race, voters are also electing members of Congress and governors in the country of fewer than 7 million people. The first results are expected from around 7 p.m. (2300 GMT).
The Colorado Party has dominated politics in the landlocked South American country since the 1950s and has ruled for all but five of the last 75 years. But its popularity has been hit by a slowing economy and graft allegations.
“I want change, yes, but not with Colorado, because it’s been them for over 70 years and we are suffering,” said Miriam Sanabria, a food vendor in the capital, Asuncion. “We need work, better security, and free medicine at hospitals.”
The build-up to the election has been dominated by the economy, corruption allegations and the candidates’ views on Taiwan. Paraguay is one of only 13 nations to maintain formal diplomatic ties with the democratically governed island that China views as its territory.
Alegre has criticized those ties, which have made it hard to sell soy and beef to China, a major global buyer, and has said that the country’s farm-driven economy does not get enough in return from Taipei.
Pena has said he would maintain ties with Taiwan.
Alegre said in an interview on Sunday morning that votes being cast would be closely monitored and he would not “give in” to attempts to prevent citizen participation.
“Up until now all reports are positive, the process is being carried out without any difficulties,” he told local ABC radio.
Separately, Pena told journalists that one of the country’s great challenges in this election was “for the value of democracy to grow”.
In final campaign events, Alegre took aim at corruption allegations that have dogged Colorado Party leader Horacio Cartes, a former president who was placed under U.S. sanctions in January. Alegre called him the “Pablo Escobar of Paraguay”. Cartes denies the allegations.
Pena acknowledged party divisions in his closing campaign speech and promised to be “a symbol of party unity”.
Catherine Gonzalez, a student, felt that none of the candidates offered things most normal people needed.
“I think they’re very far away from the day-to-day reality people live in, the people who use public transport, the people who earn the minimum wage and must survive, pay rent and support their family,” she said.