Future ties with Taiwan are in play as Paraguayans go to the polls Sunday to pick a president they hope will tackle endemic corruption, rising crime and economic inequality.
A center-left coalition is aiming to end the almost unbroken, seven-decade hegemony of the ruling conservative Colorado Party in the closest race in many years.
Some 4.8 million of the South American country’s 7.5 million inhabitants are eligible to vote in the election for president and legislature that will be determined in a single round.
Lawyer Efrain Alegre, 60, of the Concertacion center-left coalition is leading narrowly in opinion polls amid a recent anti-incumbency trend in Latin American elections.
His main challenger is Santiago Pena, a 44-year-old economist and former finance minister hoping to continue the rule of the Colorado Party that has governed almost continually since 1947 — through a dictatorship and since the return of democracy in 1989.
Though they differ on economic and international policy, the two frontrunners are both socially conservative, defending strong anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage stances in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation.
‘Back to Jerusalem’
The outcome could have important consequences for Paraguay’s international relations. It is among only 13 countries to recognize Taipei over Beijing.
But Alegre has vowed to reconsider this if he wins, telling AFP: “Relations with Taiwan mean the loss of one of the largest markets, which is China.”
He added: “Paraguay makes a very big effort, a very big sacrifice to have relations with Taiwan, but we are not seeing from Taiwan the same effort.”
Latin America has been a key diplomatic battleground.
China considers self-ruled, democratic Taiwan part of its territory to be retaken one day, and does not allow other countries to recognize both Beijing and Taipei.
Nicaragua shifted its allegiance to Beijing in 2021, as did El Salvador in 2018, Panama in 2017 and Costa Rica in 2007.
Pena has said he would retain ties with Taiwan but move Paraguay’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Moving an embassy to Jerusalem is highly contentious. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital while Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Paraguay had previously moved its embassy in 2018, but reversed its decision within months.
“Yes, I would go back to Jerusalem,” Pena told AFP days ahead of the vote.
“The State of Israel recognizes Jerusalem as its capital. The seat of the Congress is in Jerusalem, the president is in Jerusalem. So who are we to question where they establish their own capital?”
Alegre repeatedly pointed to corruption in the Colorado Party, which has seen two of its top members recently hit with US sanctions over alleged graft.
They include Pena’s political mentor, ex-president Horacio Cartes.
Paraguay is ranked 137 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Apart from the shadow of top-level graft, which has angered voters, other election issues include poverty, social inequality and an escalating crime problem.
Paraguay’s GDP is expected to grow 4.8 percent in 2023, according to the central bank, and 4.5 percent according to the IMF — one of the highest rates in Latin America.
But poverty plagues about a quarter of the population.
“The country is full of privileged people. People earn 100 million guaranis (about $14,000) a month while others are dying of hunger,” said Alegre, running his third presidential race.
“The great problem of Paraguay is not having achieved greater balance in the distribution of income to achieve greater equity,” economist Ruben Ramirez of the Trade and Investment Paraguay consultancy in Asuncion told AFP.
Paraguay’s Indigenous groups, and inhabitants of squalid shantytowns, feel especially neglected.
“I am not interested. We’re not going to vote,” said Albino Cubas, who has shared a ramshackle wooden hut with his wife and three children in the capital’s Tacumbu slum since a flood took their home.
“I have not seen a serious proposal for the poor,” he told AFP.
Crime is also a concern, with an anti-mafia prosecutor, a crime-fighting mayor and a journalist murdered in 2022 as cartels settle scores.
Experts say landlocked Paraguay — nestled between Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina — has become an important launchpad for drugs headed for Europe.
Paraguayan presidential elections are settled in a single, winner-takes-all round, and terms are constitutionally limited to one.
Voters will Sunday also decide the members of the legislature and choose 17 governors.
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