A Dragon in the Shadows
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When voters in Paraguay go to the polls on April 30, they will vote for every high office in the land – president, vice president, all 80 lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies and all 45 senators, as well as every governor of the country’s 17 regions.
And yet the South American country’s diplomatic ties with Taiwan might be the most important question on the ballot.
Since incumbent Mario Abdo Benitez of the dominant center-right Colorado Party cannot run for reelection, Santiago Pena will be the party’s standard-bearer. The party held the presidency for six decades – effectively creating one-party rule – until losing the office in 2008, only for Colorado Party candidate Horacio Cartes to win back the top job in 2013, explained the Journal of Democracy.
As the Americas Society/Council of the Americas explained, Abdo Benitez did not support Pena’s candidacy. Cartes, instead, shepherded Pena’s rise. The US, coincidentally, has slapped sanctions on Cartes for alleged human rights violations and corruption, the US Department of State announced in a January press release. The sanctions also hit Hugo Velázquez Moreno, who is currently Paraguay’s vice president. American officials believe corruption “starts at the top” in the country, quipped the Economist.
Pena’s main rival is opposition candidate Efraín Alegre of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, who served in the cabinet of former President Fernando Lugo, previously a Catholic bishop who defeated the Colorado Party in 2008 and served until 2012.
In addition to hammering home a message on defeating corruption, Alegre has pledged to improve Paraguay’s relations with China by cutting off diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the independent island that China claims as part of its sovereign territory. Paraguay is one of 14 countries around the world – and the only one in South America – that recognizes the Taiwanese government in Taipei, the Diplomat noted.
China is a major importer of Argentine and Brazilian products, a factor that could explain why leaders in those nations might not want to alienate the Chinese government. Alegre says that improved ties with China would boost soy and beef exports to the world’s second-largest economy. Farmers are clamoring for the change.
The issue became big enough in the election season that Abdo Benitez visited Taipei in February in order to reaffirm the close relationship between Paraguay and Taiwan, reported Reuters.
An anti-incumbency wave has moved through Latin America in recent years, wrote Americas Quarterly. The corruption allegations surrounding the Colorado Party might hurt their standing among voters, especially in the wake of a series of assassinations of “prosecutors, mayors, prison directors, (and) relatives of officials,” added InSight Crime.
But the Colorado Party obviously has a strong network that has allowed its members to hold onto power for so long.
Officials in Beijing will be watching closely.