ASUNCION (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 defusing fears about the end of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Pena, who has pledged to preserve long-standing Taiwanese ties in Paraguay, won 42.7% of the vote with 99.9% of the ballots counted, more than 15 points ahead of his centre-left rival Efren Alegre, who has argued to switch allegiance to China. .
“Thank you for this victory in Colorado, thank you for the victory in Paraguay,” Pena said in a speech. Allegri conceded the result. He congratulated the incumbent president, Mario Abdou Pena, on being an “elected president”, as well as the leaders of Brazil and Argentina.
Colorado and Whig candidates also performed strongly in congressional elections and gubernatorial races, with some counties recording historic majorities in Colorado over their opposition rivals.
The election result left Pena with the challenge of reviving Paraguay’s agrarian-driven economy, shrinking a large fiscal deficit, and navigating growing pressure from soybean and beef producers to abandon Taiwan in favor of China and its huge markets.
In his victory speech, Pena said, calling for “unity and consensus.”
It also highlights the dominance of the Colorado party, which has ruled for all for five of the past 75 years and has a fierce electoral machine, despite some voters’ growing discontent with a slowing economy and allegations of corruption.
“One Colorado has always been Colorado,” said Eugenio Centurion, 65, as he cast his ballot Sunday at a local polling station in Jara, Asuncion.
Analysts said the dry weather helped voters queue up to cast their ballots long after polling stations were officially scheduled to close at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT).
“Throughout the day we noticed high levels of participation,” said an observer from the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral mission.
‘Nothing will change’
However, not all voters were happy, and this was reflected in a larger-than-expected share for Paraguayan populist Copas who took nearly 23% of the vote in third place, reflecting broader support for anti-establishment candidates across Latin America.
“I’m worried about crime. All candidates are the same to me,” said Maria Jose Rodas, 34, a mother of three, as a busload of voters arrived at the inner-city polling station. “Nothing will change.”
At the Mariscal Francisco Solano López School in the capital, Asuncion, Ramona Odone was one of the first contestants to cast her vote and was hoping for a new direction.
“Look at all the young people participating, it shows that people want change,” the 79-year-old retired teacher told Reuters. “They need jobs and I need a better pension.”
The Colorado Party has dominated politics in the landlocked South American country since the 1950s. But her popularity has been hurt by a slowing economy and allegations of graft.
The economy, allegations of corruption, and the candidates’ views on Taiwan dominated the run-up to the election. Paraguay is one of only 13 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with the democratically ruled island that China considers its territory.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Taiwan’s ambassador to Asuncion extended his congratulations to Bina on behalf of President Tsai Ing-wen.
“Based on common values such as democracy, freedom and traditional friendship between the two countries, our country will continue to deepen cooperation and exchanges with the new Paraguayan government,” the ministry said.
Allegri criticized those ties, which made it difficult to sell soybeans and beef to China, a major global buyer. Bina said he will maintain relations with Taiwan.
On Sunday, Allegri warned against reports of voter obstruction in the north of the country and said he would not “give in” to attempts to prevent citizen participation.
Fiorella Moreno, 23, who sells ice cream, felt none of the candidates offered hope to her generation.
“I didn’t want to vote, I feel like everything is in decline,” she said. “But not voting makes me part of the problem.”
(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott and Daniela DeSantis) Additional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco. Editing by Adam Jordan and Sandra Mahler
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