AFP – Voters in Paraguay cast ballots Sunday to choose a new leader, turning the page on a political crisis that saw leftist president Fernando Lugo impeached 10 months ago.
Polls closed at 4:00 pm (2000 GMT) and election officials said early results would be made available at around 8:00 pm (0000 GMT Monday).
Leading candidates Horacio Cartes, a 56-year-old conservative tobacco baron, and the Liberal Party’s Efrain Alegre, 50, traded accusations of corruption and drug trafficking in a charged and highly negative campaign.
Exit polls showed Cartes with about a 10-point lead, signaling a likely return to power of the Colorado Party.
The conservative Colorados held Paraguay’s presidency for 60 years until being ousted by Lugo in 2008, thanks to a united liberal coalition.
A mostly rural country of 6.5 million bordered by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, Paraguay is seeking a replacement for Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who was ousted 10 months ago by the opposition-controlled legislature after a police eviction of farmers left 17 people dead.
Lugo’s administration was also rocked by a sex scandal, after he was forced to admit to having fathered two children out of wedlock while he was still a priest, and he faces at least two other as-yet unresolved paternity suits.
Now, the leftist coalition that swept him to power has split, although Lugo is again on the ballot — this time as a Senate candidate.
Paraguay’s 3.5 million voters are also casting ballots for the country’s legislature and 17 governors.
Since Lugo’s impeachment, the country has been led by Liberal Federico Franco, who is not running for re-election.
Shortly before voting got underway, the incumbent president declared that he was prepared to honor the will of the Paraguayan voters.
“I will hand over power to whomever wins this elections,” a process Franco said is needed to bolster Paraguay’s badly battered institutions after months of political crisis.
Franco, Lugo’s former vice president, took over as president in June. The inauguration for his successor is scheduled for August 15.
Most Latin American countries saw Lugo’s impeachment as a legislative coup d’etat, and Paraguay’s membership in the Mercosur common trade bloc and the Unasur regional group has been suspended.
During the election campaign, Alegre — a self-styled crusader against crime and corruption — highlighted Cartes’s brief 1985 jail stint for his role in a currency smuggling affair, while Cartes accused Alegre of embezzling $25 million in government funds.
The leftist Alegre, 50, was an activist who fought passionately against the dictatorship of Paraguay’s strongman, who ruled the country between 1954 and 1989.
By contrast, Cartes, one of Paraguay’s wealthiest men, is a relative newcomer on the political scene. He did not join the Colorado party until 2009, and says he only voted for the first time the following year.
Paraguay is plagued by drug-trafficking, smuggling, and pirating of copyrighted materials like music and movies, and corruption is pervasive.
In one recent incident, a conservative Colorado Party senator whas shown on television striking an agreement with two Liberal Party members to pay $25 per vote in the central Caaguazu department.
Senator Silvio Ovelar, who was suspended Friday for two months without pay, told a press conference he was trying to expose corruption on the part of his Liberal rivals but that the move had backfired.