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LATIN AMERICA | 20-04-2018 09:11

Conservative Benítez tipped to win Paraguay presidential poll

Colorado's 46-year-old candidate Mario Abdo Benítez – the son of Mario Abdo, who was the personal secretary of dictator Alfredo Stroessner – is expected to win Sunday's vote.

In power for almost all of the past seven decades, Paraguay's conservative Colorado party appears to be heading for a new victory in Sunday's presidential poll, with its candidate the frontrunner despite his father's ties to the dictatorship.

In this landlocked country, one of the poorest in Latin America which has been blighted by corruption and drug-trafficking, some 4.2 million voters are heading to the polls on Sunday to cast their vote for one of two presidential candidates. 

They will also be voting for a new Parliament, with both the head of state and his lawmakers serving for a five-year term. 

Polling stations will open at 7am local time and close nine hours later, with the first results due out an hour later. 

Leading in the polls is Colorado's 46-year-old candidate Mario Abdo Benítez, better known as "Marito" who has a lead of up to 20 percentage points on his 55-year-old rival, Efraín Alegre, who represents the left-leaning GANAR coalition.

As frontrunner, Abdo Benitez has campaigned on plans to reform the judicial system which he has accused of corruption in a country which was ranked 135 out of 180 in Transparency International's 2017 survey. 

But aside from that, this former president of the Senate who has a degree in marketing has merely pledged to keep in step with the same economic policies of outgoing President Horacio Cartes.

For the most part, that means focusing on Paraguay's strengths as a major exporter of soy, beef and hydroelectric power, which have kept growth at an average of around four percent for the past decade. 

And his popularity appears to prove voters are unworried by his family history – for "Marito" is the son of Mario Abdo, who was the personal secretary of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled the country with an iron-fist from 1954 to 1989.

Young electorate

A key factor in this year's election is the age of the voters, with almost half of them under 35, according to analyst Elizabeth González of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a Washington-based think tank. 

"This year, 43 percent of the electorate will be 18–34 years old, most of whom won't have a personal connection to the years of the dictatorship," she wrote in a paper on Sunday's vote.

"This makes them less likely to have a strong affiliation to either the Colorado Party or the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, the largest member of GANAR."

Despite Colorado's long legacy, Alegre, who is a lawyer, is hoping to repeat the success of Fernando Lugo who in 2008 became the first president elected who was not from the conservative party. 

But he only lasted four years, ousted by the Senate in 2012 for dereliction of duty following his handling of a land dispute that left 17 people dead.

And Alegre, who is making his second bid for the presidency, has gathered around him the same center-left coalition which swept Lugo to power.

Lacks Lugo's charisma

But analysts say he lacks Lugo's charisma and his magnetism, taking only 39 percent of the votes when he ran against Cartes in 2013. 

"Alegre belongs to a powerful branch of the Liberal party but he is not an undisputed leader," explained Magdalena Lopez, an expert on Paraguay at the University of Buenos Aires.

"The Liberals were part of the movement who removed Lugo from office but this time, they have realized that if they don't go (into this election) as a coalition, they won't get even close to Abdo Benitez," she said. 

Concerned by the country's poverty rate which is hovering around 26.4 percent, according to 2017 figures, Alegre has pledged to offer free healthcare for the poorest and to slash the cost of electricity bills. 

In a country with a large community of Guarani Indians – their language is one of Paraguay's two official tongues alongside Spanish – there remain huge inequalities, with some 92 percent of the agricultural land held by just 10 percent of the population, Lopez says.

THE LEADING CANDIDATES

Mario Abdo Benítez's family has long been linked with late dictator Alfredo Stroessner, but it doesn't seem to have done his campaign any harm. A twice-married 46-year-old former senator who studied marketing in the United States, "Marito" as he is popularly known, is favourite to succeed outgoing president Horacio Cartes. Opinion polls give him a lead of some 20 percentage points.

His 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 Asuncion to study at the military college, because there was a distant relationship between my grandmother and the mother of General Stroessner," he said.

But past connections with the dictator accused by human rights groups of up to 3,000 killings and disappearances during his iron-fisted 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," according to political analyst Francisco Capli.

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

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

"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. "I was 17 when Stroessner fell."

His father was jailed for corruption in the wake of Stroessner's fall. "I want to show that my commitment is to the future of Paraguay."

For his 55-year-old rival, former public works minister and parliament president Efraín Alegre, "Marito represents the past."

A practicing Catholic opposed to abortion and gay marriage, his conservative views contrast with some of the parties in his centrist GANAR Alliance.

Alegre has advocated slashing electricity bills, citing cheap power available from the country's Itaipu dam – the world's second biggest – as well as free healthcare for the country's poor, which has led to rivals branding him a populist.

"Macroeconomics doesn't feed the people," he said, rejecting as official propaganda government statements playing up 4.5 percent growth in 2017, among the highest in Latin America.

Being an anti-Stroessner militant in his youth led him to study law. "For me, studying law meant youthful rebellion and I thought it was an important instrument to use to fight against the dictatorship," he told AFP in an interview. 

Alegre is contesting his second presidential election in five years, having lost out to tobacco magnate Cartes in 2013.

The eighth of 12 sons of a landowner from the southeast, Alegre says that decades of conservative Colorado governments have been synonymous with "instability, poverty, waste and corruption" in one of Latin America's poorest countries.

- AFP

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