By DÉBORA REY
ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay (AP) — Paraguayans voted overwhelmingly to keep the long-ruling Colorado Party in power for five more years, backing its presidential candidate and giving it majorities in both houses of Congress.
Santiago Peña, a 44-year-old economist, had 43% of the votes in a preliminary count from Sunday’s election, with nearly all voting places reporting. That was far ahead of the 27% held by his closest challenger, Efraín Alegre of the Pact for a New Paraguay, a broad-based opposition coalition that had united in an effort to bring to an end Colorado’s seven-decade stranglehold on power.
The conservative Colorado Party also had a strong showing in other races, winning 15 of the 17 governorships up for election and getting majorities in both the Senate and the lower house.
Led by Alegre, the opposition coalition had been optimistic it was going to be able to win votes due to widespread unhappiness over high levels of corruption and failures in the health and education systems, which took center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet a significant number of non-Colorado voters instead supported Paraguayo Cubas, a right-wing populist outsider who received 23% of the vote with a strong anti-establishment message, a larger share than had been expected.
There were 13 candidates in all, but Paraguay doesn’t require a presidential candidate to get more than 50% of the votes, giving the victory to whomever gets the most votes.
Peña celebrated a showing that on Aug. 15 will make him Paraguay’s youngest president since the return of democracy in 1989.
“Today we’re not celebrating a personal triumph, we’re celebrating the victory of a people who with their vote chose the path of social peace, dialogue, fraternity, and national reconciliation,” Peña told a crowd of supporters Sunday night. “Long live Paraguay! Long live the Colorado Party!”
Alegre acknowledged defeat soon thereafter.
“Today, the results indicate that perhaps the effort we have made was not enough,” Alegre told reporters, adding that divisions among the opposition “prevented us from reaching the goal of being able to bring about the change that the majority of Paraguayans are asking of us.”
The first to congratulate the president-elect was the outgoing president, Mario Abdo Benítez. “Congratulations to the Paraguayan people for their great participation in this electoral process, and to the president-elect Santiago Peña,” he said on social media. “We will work to initiate an orderly and transparent transition that strengthens our institutions and the country’s democracy.”
Before the vote, analysts had predicted a close contest for president, saying Alegre could have a chance of unseating South America’s longest-governing party, which has essentially ruled Paraguay uninterrupted since 1947.
But many voters preferred to stay with the familiar, an unusual turn in a region where incumbents have not done well in recent elections.
“An unexpected result, very unexpected. I think even the Colorado Party members are shocked by such a wide margin,” political consultant Sebastián Acha said. “It gives him enormous legitimacy due to the size of the difference and that makes Peña’s victory indisputable.”
The results also appeared to mark a victory for former President Horacio Cartes, who governed in 2013-2018, and who the U.S. State Department recently accused of being involved in “significant corruption” as well as having ties to terrorism. He has denied the allegations, while Peña called them “groundless.”
Cartes, a local magnate who is also the president of the Colorado Party, is a powerful figure in Paraguayan politics and members of the opposition had characterized Peña as a frontman for Cartes to hold power.
Cartes stood next to Peña as he gave his celebratory speech Sunday night.
“I want to be a tool for you,” Cartes told Peña. “I want you to be sure that the Colorado Party is going to be your best tool.”
Peña was finance minister in the Cartes government and, until recently, a member of the board of Banco Basa, a local bank owned by the former president.
The U.S. Embassy posted a statement on social media congratulating Peña. “We will continue to work together in strengthening our excellent bilateral relations and promoting transparency and inclusive democracy,” it added.
The election in the country of almost 7 million people also had geopolitical implications as Paraguay is the only remaining country in South America to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and those ties became an issue in the campaign.
Alegre had called for the landlocked country’s relationship with Taiwan to be reviewed, saying they are too costly. Peña defended Paraguay’s relationship with Taipei, though he said he would seek more trade with China, without explaining how that would come about.
“We have a diplomatic and historic relationship with Taiwan of more than 60 years, based on principles and democratic values that we believe are fundamental for a society like Paraguay,” Peña said.
The Taiwanese Embassy posted a message on social media congratulating “president-elect” Peña.
“Congratulations to the Paraguayan people, who showed the world the democratic power of citizens through their votes,” the embassy said.
Brazil’s left-of-center president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also congratulated Peña.
“Good luck in your mandate,” the Brazilian wrote on social media. “We will work together for even better and stronger relations between our countries, and for a South America with more unity, development and prosperity.”
Alegre, a lawyer who heads the Liberal party, the second-largest political force in Congress, was making his third bid for the presidency, though this time he represented a mix of political parties.
Peña’s presidential campaign was hampered by U.S. sanctions on Cartes for alleged bribery and ties to Hezbollah, which Washington designates as a terrorist group. The sanctions blocked Cartes from the U.S. financial system and cut off funding and loans for the party’s campaign.