Paraguay's conservatives score big election win, defusing Taiwan fears
By Lucinda Elliott and Daniela Desantis
ASUNCION (Reuters) -Paraguayan conservative economist Santiago Pena, 44, won the country's presidential election on Sunday, tightening the ruling Colorado Party's political grip in the country and defusing fears about the end of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Pena, who has pledged to maintain Paraguay's long-standing Taiwan relations, had 42.7% of the vote with 99.9% of ballots counted, a more than 15-point lead over center-left rival Efrain Alegre, who has argued for switching allegiance to China.
"Thank you for this Colorado victory, thank you for this Paraguayan victory," Pena said in a speech. Alegre acknowledged the result. Current President Mario Abdo congratulated Pena as "president-elect", as did the leaders of Brazil and Argentina.
Colorado and right-wing party candidates also performed strongly in congressional elections and governor races, with some provinces recording a historic Colorado majority over opposition rivals.
The election result leaves Pena facing a challenge to rev up Paraguay's farm-driven economy, shrink a major fiscal deficit and navigate rising pressures from soy and beef producers to ditch Taiwan in favor of China and its huge markets.
"We have a lot to do, after the last years of economic stagnation, of fiscal deficit, the task that awaits us is not for a single person or for a party," Pena said in his victory speech, calling for "unity and consensus".
It also underscores the dominance of the Colorado Party, which has ruled for all by five of the last 75 years and has a fierce campaign machine, despite rising discontent from some voters over the slowing economy and corruption allegations.
"Once a Colorado always a Colorado," said Eugenio Senturion, 65, as he voted on Sunday at his local polling station in the area of Jara, Asuncion.
Dry weather helped voter turn-out, analysts said, with queues to cast ballots long after polling stations were formally meant to close at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT).
"All day we've observed high levels of participation," an observer for the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral mission said.
'NOTHING WILL CHANGE'
Not all voters were happy, however, reflected in a larger-than-expected share for populist Paraguayo Cubas who had almost 23% of the vote in third place, reflecting wider support for anti-establishment candidates around Latin America.
"I'm worried about crime. All the candidates are the same for me," said 34-year-old mother of three, Maria Jose Rodas, 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 Oddone was one of the first in line to cast her ballot and was hopeful for a new direction.
"Look at all the young people taking part - that shows people want change," the 79-year-old retired schoolteacher 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 its popularity has been hit by a slowing economy and graft allegations.
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.
Taiwan's ambassador in Asuncion offered his congratulations to Pena on behalf of President Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's foreign ministry said in a statement.
"Based on shared values such as democracy and freedom and the traditional friendship between the two countries, our country will continue to deepen cooperation and exchanges with the new government of Paraguay," the ministry said.
Alegre had criticized those ties, which have made it hard to sell soy and beef to China, a major global buyer. Pena had said he would maintain ties with Taiwan.
Alegre on Sunday warned of 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 that none of the candidates offered hope to her generation.
"I didn't want to vote, I feel everything is in decline," she said. "But not voting makes me part of the problem."
(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott and Daniela Desantis in AsuncionAdditional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco in Asuncion; Editing by Diane Craft and Stephen Coates)