Paraguay: The influence of the ex-president is questionable after the victory

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay — Conservative Santiago Peña’s landslide victory in Paraguay’s presidential election not only strengthened the power of the long-ruling Colorado Party, but also raised questions about the future role of his influential political mentor accused of corruption by the United States.

Peña, a telepathic 44-year-old economist, won Sunday’s election with 43% of the vote, compared to 27% for Pact of New Paraguay’s Efraín Alegre, a shock to pollsters who had predicted a tight race. . The right-wing populist Paraguayo Cubas performed better than expected with 23%.

The Colorado Party, which has governed Paraguay almost without interruption since 1947, also controls the Congress, as it won 23 out of 45 seats in the Senate and 48 out of 80 in the lower house. He won 15 out of 17 contested governorships.

While celebrating the victory, Peña openly thanked his mentor, former president Horacio Cartes, who was standing next to him on stage: “Dear Horacio, you believed in me when I had no political background, no political experience.”

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Peña said in a televised interview on Monday that Cartes “will continue to be a dominant figure in Paraguayan politics” but stressed that he will have “zero interference in the judiciary” after assuming the presidency on August 15.

Cartes, who served as the South American country’s president from 2013 to 2018, has been accused by Washington of engaging in “significant corruption,” bribing government officials and lawmakers, and having ties to terrorism.

“For more than a decade, Cartes used his ill-gotten wealth and influence to expand his political and economic power over Paraguayan institutions,” the State Department said in January.

Peña, who served as finance minister in the Cartes administration, has been hit by US economic sanctions against Cartes over alleged bribery and ties to Hezbollah, which the US designates as a terrorist organization, during his presidential campaign.

Cartes, who is president of the Colorado Party, denied the allegations, while Peña called them “baseless.”

Beatriz Candia, a municipal worker, said she voted for Peña “because my parents are from Colorado. I was raised with this teaching.”

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“I have a lot of hope in Santiago Peña, he is pro-life and pro-family, which are the fundamental pillars of our society and future generations,” he said.

Some analysts say the relative strength of Paraguay’s economy has been a boon for Peña.

“The economy has been working relatively well for two decades. Paraguayans are not most worried about stability and inflation,” said former finance minister César Barreto.

Alegre, the second-place candidate, represented a coalition of different parties that analysts recently considered the best chance for the opposition to wrest power from the Colorado Party. In the end, though, it wasn’t even close.

Jorge Fernández, who owns a stall at a market in Asuncion, said he was “frustrated” by the results.

“Nothing will change, we already know who runs the country, who is the boss,” he added.

According to analysts, Peña Cartes may be in office.

“He cannot govern without Cartes,” said historian and analyst Milda Rivarola of the Paraguayan Academy of History. “At the same time Cartes is in possession of the sword of Damocles: will it be released.”

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Before the elections, Peña emphasized that the courts, not the presidency, would decide on possible extradition.

Political consultant Sebastián Acha predicted that Peña would lead an “uncomfortable government”.

“We will have a president who cannot communicate freely with the party chairman and who can be held accountable at the first misstep.”

Peña, a US-trained economist who has also worked at the International Monetary Fund, will be tasked with finding resources for the deficit-ridden state, which has one of the lowest tax rates in the region, while trying to reduce its 24% poverty rate.

He also needs to prove to farmers how he will implement his plan to maintain Paraguay’s alliance with Taiwan while opening up the Chinese market. Paraguay is the only remaining country in South America that maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and those relations have become campaign themes.