Mud is flying as Paraguay girds for general elections this month, with the top two presidential candidates trading accusations of cozying up to drug traffickers and pilfering public funds.
The April 21 vote was prompted by last year’s impeachment and ouster of leftist president Fernando Lugo in the small, landlocked South American nation, which had been ruled for decades by the military or right-wing governments.
Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who has admitted fathering illegitimate children and faces paternity suits, was accused by the Paraguayan Parliament of mishandling a deadly land dispute and unseated in June last year.
His removal was seen as unfair by many of the country’s neighbors, which recalled their ambassadors and ostracized Paraguay. Lugo was the first leftist to govern the country in six decades.
The current candidate from his center-left Liberal Party, Efrain Alegre, is a 50-year-old senator who served as public works minister under Lugo.
Alegre, whose last name means “happy,” has laid into his opposition rival — wealthy businessman Horacio Cartes, of the conservative Colorado Party — accusing him of being in bed with drug traffickers.
Alegre has said that Cartes spent time in jail for sneaking millions in hard currency out of Paraguay illegally in 1985, although the conviction was eventually overturned.
“Narco-politics will rein” if Cartes wins, the governing party candidate said.
Cartes, he added, is “the maximum expression of the smuggling, mafia and pirating model” of government. Paraguay is notorious for pirating of copyrighted materials like movies and music.
Cartes, a 57-year-old tobacco grower, has fired back, accusing his rival of embezzling US$25 million as minister under Lugo and saying such crime was rampant.
“You can’t keep handling public money as if it were private,” Cartes said this week. “We are going to put an end to that custom of robbery. It is what has destroyed Paraguay.”
Cartes accuses Alegre of waging a dirty campaign and has filed a slander complaint against him.
He has also said the ruling party will try to plant drugs on one of his properties to ruin his election bid.
Alegre has defended his campaign, saying his rival’s arrest in the currency case is fair game.
“How can you call this a dirty campaign if he shows up in a picture with handcuffs” at a jail in the capital, Asuncion, Alegre said.
In the upcoming election voters will choose a president and vice president, 45 senators, 80 deputies and the governors of 17 departments.
An average drawn from the most recent polls gives a six-point advantage to Cartes.
However, that was before the ruling party struck a deal with another opposition party seen as improving its chances of remaining in power.