Asuncion (AFP) – Paraguay was counting votes on Sunday after an election that looked set to propel the US-educated son of a senior aide to the country’s late dictator to the top job in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Opinion polls had consistently given Mario Abdo Benitez, 46, of the ruling conservative Colorado party a clear lead over his centrist opponent, Efrain Alegre, in a two-horse race to succeed outgoing conservative President Horacio Cartes.
But with 65 percent of the votes counted, the race appeared to be much closer than expected, with Abdo Benitez taking 47 percent compared with 42.4 percent for Alegre, the election commission said.
Although the latest opinion polls predicted a neck-and-neck finish, they suggested Abdo Benitez would ultimately win.
Despite a slow start, turnout stood at around 65 percent by the time polling stations closed at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT), officials said.
Landlocked Paraguay — sandwiched between Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil — has enjoyed consistent economic growth under tobacco magnate Cartes, but has failed to shrug off persistent poverty, corruption and drug trafficking.
It remains a land of contrasts, still marked by the 1954-1989 dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner.
However, a new generation of voters among the electorate of 4.2 million — born after the dictatorship responsible for the deaths or disappearances of up to 3,000 people — seems ready to turn the page.
“Most people feel resentful towards Cartes,” 18-year-old student Alex Gimenez told AFP, saying a vote to punish him could affect Abdo Benitez’s chances.
Forty-three percent of the population is aged between 18 and 34.
– A vote for change? –
Polls in recent weeks have given Abdo Benitez, the son of Stroessner’s personal secretary, a lead of 20 points in the race to succeed Cartes.
He appeared confident his background would not affect his chances. “I have earned my democratic credentials on my political journey,” Abdo Benitez said.
But Alegre, 55, also appeared upbeat. “I think people will come out for change,” he said of a country that has spent nearly 70 years under Colorado rule.
Electing Abdo Benitez despite his father’s links with the dictatorship would confirm if Paraguayans have turned the page on the darkest chapter of their recent history.
“Paraguayan society is changing faster than its political elite,” wrote Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at Sao Paulo’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, in Americas Quarterly.
“A generation is gaining influence that has no clear memory of non-democratic rule — a first in Paraguayan history.”
Voters also cast their ballots for a new parliament and governors of the country’s 17 departments.
– Growth, but grinding poverty –
Tobacco magnate Cartes kept Paraguay on course for year-on-year growth of about 4.0 percent in an economy whose major exports are soybeans, beef and hydroelectric power.
But there has been little progress in alleviating poverty that has remained stubbornly at 26.4 percent and corruption, with Paraguay languishing 135th out of 180 countries ranked by Transparency International.
The outgoing president himself admitted that Paraguay had “social debts” and that “everything needs to be done.”
“It is just not conceivable that with all the richness we have in a country of seven million people, that we have such poverty,” he said after casting his ballot.
If Abdo Benitez ended up losing, it would be “a vote of sanction against Cartes, who has presided over a government of exclusion,” pollsters Sneard told AFP, saying such a vote would stem from weariness among the electorate.
– Odds in Colorado’s favor –
Abdo Benitez, who goes by the nickname “Marito,” has pledged to reform the judicial system to render it less prone to corruption, but to maintain Cartes’ economic policy.
Alegre, the outsider at the head of the centrist GANAR alliance, has offered free health care for the poor and to slash the cost of electricity to stimulate investment and jobs.
The two adversaries agree on one point: they oppose the legalization of abortion and gay marriage in this deeply-conservative Catholic country.
“I am for life. I am against abortion and its decriminalization,” Alegre told AFP in an interview.
“Nobody can take the place of God to decide on the life or death of a person.”
But the odds are stacked in Abdo Benitez’s favor: The only time the country had a president who did not come from the Colorado party was in 2008-2012, when former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo ruled.