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Election of the day: Paraguay

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Paraguay will elect a president today. It’s a bit of those good news/bad news kind of situation. The good news is that the conservative, historically dominant Colorado party, an effective political machine that has held power in Paraguay for 72 of the last 77 years, may actually lose the presidency. Unlike some neighboring countries, the candidate who might succeed in defeating them, Efrain Alegre, is no ALMO or Lula-style leftist. His political views are broadly characterized as centrist, but the coalition of parties he appears to be holding together runs the gamut from far-left to center-right (not aligned with Colorado). The proximate cause of the vulnerability of the Colorado candidate, Santiago Peña, appears to be tied to high levels of public frustration with a series of high-level corruption scandals, many of which implicate their current president, Mario Abdo Benítez, or the previous president, Horatio Cartes, with whom Peña is strongly aligned. (Alegre lost to Benitez by about 4% in 2018.) In particular, the Colorado party’s factions have recently taken to airing their grievances with each other publicly, contributing to the public focus on corruption this election cycle:

The party’s two factions—led by current President Mario Abdo Benítez and former President Horacio Cartes, respectively—both face allegations of high-level corruption. Now, each fears prosecution should the other come to power.

It has already been a turbulent year. In February (2022), Abdo’s interior minister released evidence linking Cartes, a major business owner and one of the richest men in the country, to money laundering networks and cigarette smuggling—perhaps Paraguay’s most prominent illicit activity. Then, in July, the U.S. State Department designated Cartes a participant in “significant corruption,” alleging connections to transnational organized crime.

Just weeks later, it made the same designation of a leader of the other faction: Abdo’s sitting Vice President Hugo Velázquez, an early favorite to win the party’s primary. He dropped out of the race but has not resigned. Cartes and Velázquez both deny the allegations as domestic investigations continue.

Polling suggests a very close race, but Alegre appears to have a small lead. An inability to manage factional conflicts quietly and privately was likely a features in Colorado’s only previous presidential loss in 2008.

So, what’s the bad news? There’s a third candidate, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas, who has surged in some late polls. He squarely occupies the xenophobic right-populist political space the extremely establishment Colorado party struggles to co-opt, and he’s (at least) Bolsonaro/Trump-level awful. Ideologically, he’s an inconsistent opportunist, representing a center-left party in Congress in the 1990’s, then elected to the Senate under the banner of a Conservative party. Last year he sought to be Alegre’s running mate. He now labels his ideology “Nationalist Anarchist.” Trying to outflank Alegre on the anti-corruption front, he has made calling for the death penalty for government officials convicted of corruption charges central to his campaign. His greatest hits include: expulsion from the Senate in 2019 after calling for a genocide of Brasiguayos (Paraguayans of Brazilian origin), a national minority numbering around 100,000, several physical altercations with other Senators during his brief tenure in the Senate 2018-19, and assaulting a judge with his belt, then immediately and publicly defecating in that judge’s secretary’s office, leading to another arrest in 2016. One might reasonably hope he might draw support that would otherwise go to Colorado, but most observers seem to think the more relevant axis in Paraguayan politics today is not left/right but establishment/anti-establishment, and he is more likely to function as a spoiler for Alegre than for Peña.

While this election season has been dominated by the twin issues of corruption and the (lack of) strength of the economy, another somewhat surprising issue has seen significant focus: relations with Taiwan. Paraguay is one of only 13 countries in the world to maintain formal diplomatic ties to Taipei, and has been rewarded for that relationship with a steady stream of modest investments and foreign aid, including a Taiwan-funded engineering college in Asunción. This alliance has been of historic importance to the Colorado party and dates back to 1957. Colorado politicians have referred to their close diplomatic relationships with Taiwan, the United States and Israel as Paraguay’s “Strategic Triangle.” Alegre’s case for shifting diplomatic allegiances to Beijing is straightforwardly pragmatic; the typical Latin American/Caribbean state with diplomatic relations to China sees direct investment from Chinese state-owned enterprises totaling about 1% of their GDP. Taiwan simply can’t compete with that. Pena, predictably, has attempted to use this issue to redbait his opponent, suggesting his desire to establish diplomatic relations is evidence of his commitment to Communism.

We’ll know how it all turns out later tonight. My benchmark for a happy result: an Alegre victory with a comfortable margin of ~3% or more (I will forgive my Taiwanese friends for not joining me on this one) and Cubas<15%.

Update: It appears Colorado’s vulnerability was vastly overstated by some pretty substantial polling errors. And Cubas is now over 20%–he almost certainly wasn’t a spoiler, unless his voters would have otherwise been in absolutely lock-step for Alegre. So, 0/2. If you held a gun to my head and demanded I find some good news in this election, obviously the big one is they won’t be casting the Taiwan alliance aside, at least not yet. I’d also note that Pena significantly toned down his party’s social conservatism for this campaign.


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