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LATIN AMERICA | 23-04-2018 12:21

Conservative Abdo Benítez wins Paraguay presidency with narrow victory

The US-educated son of a senior aide to the country's late dictator, Abdo Benitez won slightly more than 46 percent of the vote, with his opponent Efraín Alegre taking almost 43 percent in a race that was far closer than expected.

Paraguay's Mario Abdo Benítez, who represents the country's long-dominant Colorado conservatives, was elected as president on Sunday night.

The US-educated son of a senior aide to the country's late dictator, Abdo Benitez won slightly more than 46 percent of the vote, with his opponent Efraín Alegre taking almost 43 percent in a race that was far closer than expected.

Opinion polls had consistently given Abdo Benítez, 46, a clear lead of up to 20 points over Alegre in a two-man contest to succeed outgoing conservative President Horacio Cartes.

Greeting thousands of excited supporters outside the party headquarters, Abdo Benítez pledged to win the trust of those who did not vote for him. 

Through the election, Paraguay had "set an example" and shown that "democracy is well established" in the country, he said, before paying homage to his father, whom he described as "a great member" of the Colorado party. 

Despite a slow start, turnout stood at 65 percent by the time polling stations closed at 4.00pm local time. As the counting got under way, it quickly became clear the results would be much closer than anticipated.

Analysts said electing Abdo Benítez, the son of the personal secretary to dictator Alfredo Stroessner, suggested that Paraguayans had managed to turn the page on the darkest chapter of their recent history.

Landlocked Paraguay – sandwiched between Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil _ has enjoyed consistent economic growth under tobacco magnate Cartes, but has failed to shake off persistent poverty, corruption and drug trafficking.

It remains a land of contrasts, still marked by the 1954-1989 dictatorship of General 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 look to the future. 

"Most people feel resentful towards Cartes," 18-year-old student Alex Gimenez told AFP.

In Paraguay, 43 percent of the population is aged between 18 and 34.

A vote for change?

Ahead of the vote, Abdo Benítez appeared confident his background would not affect his chances. "I have earned my democratic credentials on my political journey," he said. 

But Alegre had banked on people voting for change after almost 70 years of dominance by the ruling Colorado party. Accepting that his rival had won three percentage points more than him, Alegre said that nothing could stop the pace of change. 

"We think change in Paraguay is irreversible, better sooner than later," he said.

Writing in Americas Quarterly magazine, Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at São Paulo's Getulio Vargas Foundation said the Colorado party had become increasingly aware of the public desire for change. 

"Paraguayan society is changing faster than its political elite and a generation is gaining influence that has no clear memory of non-democratic rule -- a first in Paraguayan history," he wrote.

"Whoever succeeds Cartes... will have to contend with a new generation that is out to change Paraguay for the better." 

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.

Abdo Benítez, 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.

And the odds have long been stacked in his favour: 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.

Dictator link

Mario Abdo Benítez's family may have been linked with Paraguay's late dictator Alfredo Stroessner, but it didn't harm his campaign. 

Abdo Benítez's father was Stroessner's private secretary, and they also had a family connection. 

"What they tell me is that Stroessner often stayed at my grandmother's house when he came to Asunción to study at the military college, because there was a distant relationship between my grandmother and the mother of General Stroessner," Abdo Benítez said.

But past connections with the dictator accused by human rights groups of up to 3,000 killings and disappearances during his 1954-1989 rule have been left aside in the electoral campaign.

"Those who are less than 40 years old no longer remember the dictatorship, which is why it is not part of the discussion in this campaign," said political analyst Francisco Capli.

"I am proud that the victims who suffered mistreatment and torture at that time are working with me today," Abdo Benítez told AFP in an interview. "This is another era. If I had been rejected, they would not be with me."

The president-elect is a product of Paraguay's high society but he claims to have forged his own political identity since entering politics in 1992.

"I was 17 when Stroessner fell," he said, with his father jailed for corruption shortly after. 

"I regret the dark part of our history, but like many Paraguayans I think it should not be an excuse to maintain division among compatriots," he said. 

- AFP

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