Paraguayans go to the polls as relations with Taiwan are at stake

ASUNCION (Reuters) – Paraguayans began voting on Sunday in what could be the biggest electoral challenge to Colorado’s ruling conservative party in more than a decade, with the country’s longstanding ties with Taiwan likely to be at risk.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (1100 GMT) in what is expected to be a close contest between Colorado Party presidential candidate Santiago Pena, a 44-year-old economist, and veteran politician Efren Alegre, 60, who leads a broad center-left coalition. And pledge to amend foreign policy.

In addition to the one-round winner-takes-all presidential race, voters also elect congressmen and governors in the nation of less than 7 million people. The first results are expected from around 7 pm (2300 GMT).

The Colorado Party has dominated politics in the landlocked South American nation since the 1950s and has ruled it for all but five of the past seventy-five years. But her popularity has been hurt by a slowing economy and allegations of graft.

“I want change, yes, but not with Colorado, because they’ve been through it for more than 70 years and we’ve been suffering,” said Miriam Sanabria, a food seller in the capital, Asuncion. “We need work, better safety, and free medicines in hospitals.”

The economy, allegations of corruption, and the candidates’ views on Taiwan dominated the run-up to the election. Paraguay is one of only 13 countries that maintain formal diplomatic relations with the democratically ruled island that China considers its territory.

Allegri criticized those ties, which have made it difficult to sell soybeans and beef to China, a major global buyer, and said the country’s agriculture-driven economy was not getting enough in return from Taipei.

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Bina said he will maintain relations with Taiwan.

Allegri said in an interview on Sunday morning that votes cast would be closely monitored and that he would not “give in” to attempts to prevent citizen participation.

“So far, all reports are positive, and the process is under way without any difficulties,” he told local ABC radio.

Separately, Pena told reporters that one of the biggest challenges facing the country in this election is “the growth in the value of democracy.”

In recent campaign events, Alegre has taken aim at corruption allegations that have dogged Colorado Party leader Horacio Cartes, the former president who was sanctioned by US sanctions in January. Allegri called him “Pablo Escobar of Paraguay”. Cartesi denies the allegations.

Pena acknowledged partisan divisions in his campaign closing speech and promised to be a “symbol of party unity”.

Kathryn Gonzalez, a student, felt that neither candidate offered things most ordinary people would need.

“I think they are very far removed from the daily reality that people live in, people using public transportation, people who earn minimum wages and have to survive, pay rent and provide for their families,” she said.

(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott and Daniela DeSantis) Additional reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco. Editing by Adam Jordan and Sandra Mahler

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