Paraguay’s knife-edge election

with contributions from Andrew Nickson, University of Birmingham

Reading time: 4 mins approx.

Paraguay will elect a new president on 30 April. The election’s outcome, just a week before polls open, remains highly uncertain.

Incumbent President Mario Abdo Benítez is not eligible to run again for the presidency after his single five-year term. Abdo Benítez’ conservative Colorado Party has dominated the country’s government for all but five years (2008-2013) of the last eight decades, stretching back throughout Paraguay’s period of military dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner. This election is Paraguay’s eighth since the 1989 coup that brought down Stroessner’s El Stronato regime.

The contest between former Finance Minister, Santiago Peña, candidate for the ruling Asociación Nacional Republicana – Partido Colorado (Colorado Party), and former Public Works and Communications Minister, Efraín Alegre, candidate for the opposition Concertación coalition and president of the centrist Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA), is entering its final stretch, with polling on a knife edge between the two leading candidates.

Nearly 5 million Paraguayans will be eligible to cast their vote – an unprecedented number in this South American country. Top issues for voters include political corruption, crime, narcotics, unemployment, poverty and inflation; and the issue of Paraguay’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan will be high on the new president’s agenda.

Running for the third time to be President, Alegre has made his slogan “la mafia o la patria” – mafia or homeland – indicating the centrality of political corruption as an issue in this election. In just the last nine months, six top figures in the Colorado Party, including Horacio Cartes, its president, key financier and former president of the country (2013-2018), have been sanctioned by the US government on allegations of corruption and other crimes. These measures may have significantly dented Peña’s campaign, with the closeness of polling in this final week, a far cry from the substantial lead he held in earlier surveys; a result of corruption-driven rifts within the Colorado Party, and low-hanging fruit for the opposition.

However, the two candidates’ approaches to Paraguay’s economy do not appear to be fundamentally divergent, with both adopting a traditional market-oriented, neoliberal policy programme. Peña’s focus has been on stimulating economic growth through foreign investment, building on low taxes and low wages. For his part, Alegre is campaigning on a platform of fiscal austerity, combined with toughness on tax evasion and a clampdown on the low productivity of public spending caused by corruption.

Surprisingly, the renegotiation of the Paraguay-Brazil treaty on the binational Itaipu hydroelectric plant has hardly figured in the election campaign. The 50-year-old treaty, signed in 1973 by the then-military dictatorships of both countries, expires in August just as the new president takes office. The treaty is widely seen by most Paraguayans, right across the political spectrum, as a bad deal. The plant provides 90% of Paraguay’s electricity, and the country sells a substantial part of its 50% energy share back to the Brazilian grid – but at what Paraguayans regard as very unfavourable rates. Renegotiation of the treaty will be among the first arrivals in the victor’s in-tray, and neither candidate has set out a clear position as yet.

If he wins, Alegre says he will swap Paraguay’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. At present, Paraguay is one of just two countries in Latin America – the other being Guatemala – to maintain full diplomatic ties with Taipei, and finds itself alone on the issue in South America and in the key Mercosur trade bloc. Flipping to Beijing would open the Chinese market to Paraguayan agricultural exports, a central pillar of the country’s economy and a factor that has prompted Paraguayans, particularly among its meat and soybean producers, to favour the switch.

Conversely, Peña and the Colorado Party have been receptive to Taiwanese overtures, committing to retain Paraguay’s link with Taipei, which began in 1957 under the Stroessner regime. Although Taiwan provides a limited source of investment, aid and trade for Paraguay, it has become a growing factor in the country’s generally positive relationship with the United States.

This election has also seen the emergence of Paraguayo Cubas, a former Senator, as a controversial anti-establishment candidate. Although an outsider in this vote, his third place in polling – albeit a distant one – as leader of his right-leaning populist Partido Cruzada Nacional could indicate a growing dissatisfaction with Paraguay’s two traditional parties, appealing especially among young voters, who comprise a majority of the electorate.

This Sunday’s elections cover Paraguay’s president, representatives in its 80-strong Chamber of Deputies and 45-strong Senate, as well as 17 departmental governors and associated assemblies. Those elected will take office on 15 August 2023.

Join Canning House for a webinar next Tuesday (2 May) in which Canning House CEO Jeremy Browne discusses the significance of the election’s result with a panel of Andrew Nickson (University of Birmingham), Daniel Zovatto (International IDEA), Marie Claire Burt (Colmena, University of Sussex) and Julieta Heduvan (Universidad de Salamanca). Learn more and register now.

Susana Berruecos

Susana joined Canning House in 2023 as its Head of Policy and Public Affairs. She has over 25 years of international affairs experience, including at the Mexican Senate and in a number of financial institutions. Susana received her PhD from the London School of Economics in 2010.

Freddy Nevison-Andrews

Freddy joined Canning House in 2019, and became Press & Communications Manager in 2022. He will shortly be completing an MSc in Globalisation and Latin American Development at the UCL Institute of the Americas.

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