ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay (AP) — The long-governing Colorado Party remained the dominant force of Paraguayan politics as the vote count from Sunday’s election gave an overwhleming lead to its presidential candidate, Santiago Peña, with nearly all votes counted.
With almost 99% of voting places reporting, Peña had 43% of the vote, compared to 27% for the closest challenger, Efraín Alegre, the candidate of the Pact for a New Paraguay, a broad-based opposition coalition that had hoped to end Colorado’s reign.
Voters also gave support to Colorado in congressional elections, with the conservative party winning majorities of 45 seats in the Senate and 80n seats in the lower house.
The opposition had sought to capitalize on widespread discontent over high levels of corruption and deficiencies in the health and education systems that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Paraguay has a relatively stable economy, but with high levels of poverty.
Outgoing President Mario Abdo Benítez called Peña “president-elect” in a congratulatory message on social media before a winner was officially declared. He also congratulated “the Paraguayan people for their large participation in this election day.”
Peña celebrated a showing that would make him Paraguay’s president on Aug. 15 while waiting for an official declaration of final results.
“Today we’re not celebrating a personal triumph, we’re celebrating the victory of a people who with their vote chose the path of social peace, dialogue, fraternity, and national reconciliation,” Peña told a crowd of supporters Sunday night. “Long live Paraguay! Long live the Colorado Party!”
Alegre acknowledged defeat shortly thereafter.
“Today, the results indicate that perhaps the effort we have made was not enough,” Alegre told reporters, adding that divisions among the opposition “prevented us from reaching the goal of being able to bring about the change that the majority of Paraguayans are asking of us.”
Before the vote, analysts had said the race looked to be tight and predicted Alegre could have a chance of unseating South America’s longest-governing party, which has essentially ruled Paraguay uninterrupted since 1947.
“An unexpected result, very unexpected. I think even the Colorado Party members are shocked by such a wide margin,” political consultant Sebastián Acha said. “It gives him enormous legitimacy due to the size of the difference and that makes Peña’s victory indisputable.”
Yet the preliminary returns seemed to indicate voters in preferred to stay with the familiar, a break for a region in which the incumbents have not done well in recent elections.
Paraguay doesn’t have a runoff, so whoever of the 13 candidates received the most votes would be the next president.
The results also appeared to mark a victory for former President Horacio Cartes, who governed in 2013-2018, who the U.S. State Department recently accused of being involved in “significant corruption” as well as having ties to terrorism. He has denied the allegations.
Cartes, a local magnate who is also the president of the Colorado Party, is a powerful figure in Paraguayan politics and members of the opposition had characterized Peña as a frontman for Cartes to hold power. Cartes stood next to Peña as he gave his celebratory speech Sunday night.
“I want to be a tool for you,” Cartes told Peña during the celebrations. “I want you to be sure that the Colorado Party is going to be your best tool.”
Peña was finance minister in the Cartes government and, until recently, a member of the board of Banco Basa, a local bank owned by the former president.
The election in this country of almost 7 million people also had geopolitical implications as Paraguay is the only remaining country in South America to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and those ties became an issue in the campaign.
Alegre had called for the landlocked country’s relationship with Taiwan to be reviewed, saying they are too costly. Peña defended Paraguay’s relationship with Taipei, but said he would seek more trade with China, without explaining how that would come about.
“We have a diplomatic and historic relationship with Taiwan of more than 60 years, based on principles and democratic values that we believe are fundamental for a society like Paraguay,” Peña said.
The Taiwanese Embassy posted a message on social media congratulating “president-elect” Peña.
“Congratulations to the Paraguayan people, who showed the world the democratic power of citizens through their votes,” the embassy said.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also didn’t wait for the winner to be officially declared to congratulate Peña.
“Good luck in your mandate,” the Brazilian wrote on social media. “We will work together for even better and stronger relations between our countries, and for a South America with more unity, development and prosperity.”
Alegre, a lawyer who heads the Liberal party, the second-largest political force in Congress, was making his third bid for the presidency, though this time he represented a mix of political parties.
Peña’s presidential campaign was hampered by U.S. sanctions on Cartes for alleged bribery and ties to Hezbollah, which Washington designates as a terrorist group. The sanctions blocked Cartes from the U.S. financial system and cut off funding and loans for the party’s campaign.
“Cartes was the financing chief of the Colorado Party. The cash box was left empty,” said Diego Abete Brun, a political science professor who heads the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies program at George Washington University. He had expected a close contest.
Peña called the accusations against Cartes “groundless,” while Alegre sought to turn the claims against the Colorado Party.
“Our adversary is not the Colorado Party but the dirty money of organized crime,” Alegre told reporters.
There appeared to be a big turnout Sunday with long lines at polling stations. Some people complained of delays and difficulties with the electronic voting system.