ASUNCION, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguayans elected a tobacco magnate as their new leader Sunday, returning the conservative Colorado Party to the presidency that it held for 61 years before former Roman Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won the office in 2008.
Horacio Cartes won a five-year term with 46 percent of the vote over 37 percent for Efrain Alegre of the Radical Liberal party, the Electoral Court announced after most votes were counted. Five other candidates trailed far behind.
“I’ll need help from all the Paraguayans to govern in the next five years. Poverty, the lack of jobs for young people and international issues await us,” Cartes said Sunday night.
Poverty is widespread in Paraguay, which is an agrarian nation that is South America’s No. 3 producer of soy, corn and sunflowers. About 1 percent of the population controls 77 percent of the arable land. The U.N. estimates more than half of Paraguayans live in poverty, while the country’s census bureau puts the number at 39 percent.
Alegre recognized his defeat despite saying earlier that he might challenge the outcome. “The Paraguayan people have spoken. There’s nothing more to say,” he said in a brief concession speech.
Cartes, 58, is part of the tiny elite that controls just about everything in Paraguay. His father represented the Cessna airplane company in Paraguay, which enabled Cartes to get schooling in the U.S. state of Oklahoma.
The president-elect owns controlling shares in banks, investment funds, agricultural estates, a soda maker and tobacco plantations. Most pre-election polls predicted his victory, despite this being his first run for public office. Cartes has been well-known in Paraguay as president of Libertad, the club that won last year’s national soccer championship.
Many Paraguayans hope this election will encourage other countries to restore full relations that were suspended after last year’s impeachment of Lugo, which neighboring nations saw as a threat to democracy in the region.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias led an observer mission from the Organization of American States, and said Sunday that he had complete confidence in the Electoral Court because it had spent months observing and supporting the process. There were 515 observers from the OAS, European Union, the Union of South American Nations regional bloc known as UNASUR and the Union of Latin American Electoral Organizations.
International election observer Martin Sequeira said voting proceeded calmly with a high turnout. He said there were some unconfirmed reports of election fraud complaining that some ballots had been pre-marked.
But Arias said those were only “some small incidents, which you see even in the most consolidated democracies.”
The Colorados held the presidency during and after Alfredo Stroessner’s 35-year-dictatorship, until Lugo, a leftist, sandal-wearing former bishop, joined up with the Radical Liberals and was swept into office on promises of land reform. But Lugo lacked even a handful of supporters in congress, made political missteps within his own coalition and was stymied at every turn.
The Radical Liberals finally joined with the Colorados to vote Lugo out of office for “poor performance” last year. The impeachment process is well defined under the constitution, but Paraguay’s neighbors criticized the ouster of a popularly elected president as anti-democratic and suspended the country’s membership in UNASUR, the Mercosur trade bloc and CELAC, which brings together Caribbean, Latin American and European Union countries.
Lugo’s vice president, Federico Franco, a Radical Liberal politician who took over as caretaker president, said he expects Paraguay’s status to be swiftly normalized after the new head of state takes office Aug. 15.
Turnout was more than 68 percent among the estimated 3.5 million of Paraguay’s 6.2 million citizens who are registered to vote. They elected 45 senators, 80 deputies, 17 governors and 18 delegates to the Mercosur parliament based in Uruguay.
Millions more eligible voters live outside Paraguay, but after a poorly funded registration process, fewer than 22,000 people were registered, most in Argentina, Spain and the United States.