Paraguay: choosing the lesser evil with the greater problems?



Almost 5 million voters judge "people's elected representatives" not by their deeds and not by their words but by their party affiliation.

Paraguay avoided the second wave of "pink tide" in Latin America, marked by the rise to power of social democrats in Chile (Gabriel Boric), Colombia (Gustavo Petro), Brazil (Luiz Lula). But this does not mean that the country's new president-elect will be able to avoid dealing with difficult socio-economic problems passed down for more than 70 years.

Little has changed since then in the Paraguayan electoral system, a country where there is no runoff election, where presidents are elected by a simple majority and cannot be re-elected, and where both the executive and legislative branches of government are dominated by men. Thus, in the current elections, of the 9,095 candidates for senators, deputies, governors and members of local juntas, 6,098 are men and only 2,997 are women. And less than 1 percent of the candidates for leadership represent the 19 indigenous peoples of Paraguay. And the key issue is not so much the candidates' electoral programs and promises, but the choice between a decades-long ruling party and new coalitions.

On the eve of the election, the national government imposed severe restrictions. From Saturday evening until the polls close, Paraguay's police and security forces are on alert for Sunday's elections, prohibiting the sale of alcohol and public events within 200 meters of polling stations. Violations are punishable by high fines under the Electoral Code.

In Sunday's general elections, some 4.8 million Paraguayans elected a president, a vice president, 45 senators (plus 30 alternates), 80 deputies (plus 80 alternates), 17 governors and 17 local juntas (councils).

In the presidential elections the main favorites of the 13 candidates for the highest post of the state, as "predicted" by the capital newspaper La Republica, were the 60-year-old liberal Efrain Alegre of the so-called "Coalition for New Paraguay" (unites 14 parties and movements from the extreme left to the centrists and center-right) and 44-year-old conservative Santiago Peña of the ruling "National Republican Association" or Colorado Party (ANR-PC).

Santiago Peña received 43.07% of the votes. Second place went to Efrain Alegre, with 27.49% of the vote. The elected head of state will take office on August 15, 2023 and will leave in August 2028 with no chance of re-election.

The Colorado Party (Partido Colorado, the "Colored" Party), a conservative political force that has ruled Paraguay almost continuously since 1947 under both civilian and military rulers, and was the political pillar of the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, who for 34 years (1954-1989) usurped power at the cost of rigged elections. The experience was well learned by his party.

The power of the "coloreds" was shaken in 2008, when the former bishop Fernando Lugo won the general elections. But his rule was interrupted in 2012 by a parliamentary impeachment procedure (traditionally both the Senate and the House of Deputies are dominated by colorados). In the following elections in 2013, the Colorado Party again demonstrated a solid political structure based solely on the strength of the state apparatus and the hierarchy of Paraguay's first political force, with nearly two million members in a country of nearly seven million inhabitants.

The new president, Santiago Peña, has a bachelor's degree in economics from Catholic University and a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University in the United States. He started at the Central Bank of Paraguay, then served in the African Department of the International Monetary Fund and returned to Paraguay to take a seat on the Board of Directors of the Central Bank of Paraguay. From 2015 to 2017 he served as Minister of Finance of the Republic of Paraguay.

Paraguay is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. And all of its problems, like power, are passed to the next "colored" president by inheritance. Money laundering, rampant corruption, smuggling and drug trafficking are typical accusations of those in power in this country. Outgoing President Abdo Benítez, son of dictator Stroessner's personal secretary, did not escape similar accusations. All this must have been detrimental to Peña, whose friendship with previous presidents is a matter of public record.

In Paraguay, wealth is concentrated in a small part of the population. According to Oxfam, an association of international nongovernmental charities, 1.6 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the territory. At the same time, 25 out of every 100 households are food insecure and 24.7% of the population lives in conditions of destitution and extreme poverty, according to data released in December 2022 by the National Institute of Health.

So far, this has not embarrassed those in power, who have not forgotten themselves or their families. In Paraguay, there are at least three elements that contribute to the consolidation of corruption, says Tiziano Breda, an expert on Latin America at the Rome Institute of International Relations (IAI). The first is the concentration of power in the hands of one party. The second factor is weak legislation, which does not guarantee transparency in the financing of government programs and promotes mutual responsibility. And the third is the increasing trafficking of drugs, which more than half of the population is involved in.

Paraguay's geographic feature favors drug trafficking. In the jungle of its triple border with Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, a paradise of marijuana producers has been created. A scandalous senator from Paraguay's National Crusade movement, Payo Cubas, sharply critical of the corrupt government, called in his campaign for the legalization of cannabis plantations and the low-cost sale of "first-class marijuana" and won an equally surprising as staggering 22.92% of the vote in the final days of the election, coming in third place.

Even without this, Paraguay, which has decent but underdeveloped deposits of oil, iron ore, limestone, and manganese, could not be poor. Today Paraguay (along with Brazil) has the second largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, Itaipu. With a population of 7 million people, its power plants produce electricity for more than 30 million people. And the country exports 75% of the energy it produces and remains the largest energy exporter in the world.

Paraguay is the world's sixth largest producer of soybeans and one of the world's top six beef suppliers. Agronomists believe that 90% of the land is suitable for farming. Incredibly, Paraguay leads Latin America in access to social networks: 83% of the population has Facebook and WhatsApp, compared to 71% in Argentina, 69% in Chile and 63% in Brazil. At the same time, 51% of Facebook and Whatsapp users do not have basic access to drinking water at home.

In his electoral program, Santiago Peña promised, among other things, to rebuild the health care system, build hospitals in various departments of the country, cut the cost of public transportation for students and pupils in half, and create 500,000 new jobs. Kate Gorostiaga, a Paraguayan professor and researcher of democracy and political institutions, believes that Peña "will face the challenge of reducing a large budget deficit after his election, the challenge of reviving the country's farming industry." All this comes on top of high levels of inequality and unemployment, rampant corruption and drug trafficking, with widespread social discontent. So the promise will have to wait another five years.

So far, the Colorado Party has managed to maintain its political hegemony, which has proved its strength in this election. But whether Santiago Peña's government can keep the party and the country from splitting and lead to victory in the 2028 elections is a question.