A voting site in Asunción, Paraguay. (AP)

Explainer: Paraguay's 2023 Elections

By Jon Orbach

Can the opposition capitalize on discontent over Colorado Party scandals in the April 30 presidential vote? AS/COA Online covers candidates and issues.

This explainer was originally published on March 23 and has since been updated.

Latin America has been beset by an anti-incumbency wave in recent years, but Paraguay could test that trend on April 30. That’s when voters will decide whether the ruling Colorado Party will remain in power. Polling, charted below, indicates a tight competition.

Current President Mario Abdo Benítez cannot run for reelection and former Finance Minister Santiago Peña will be Colorado Party’s candidate. The party has dominated Paraguayan politics for decades, operating under one-party rule during Paraguay’s dictatorship and then holding the presidency for all but five years since the country’s return to democracy. Now, some of its top figures are ensnared in major scandals linked to organized crime and have even been sanctioned by the United States.

With that, the opposition Concertación coalition will try to convince voters to reject the status quo, hoping its nominated candidate, Efraín Alegre of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), can ride voter frustration to the presidency. Some 70 percent of Paraguayans have said that their country requires profound changes, per a June 2022 poll. Polls show Alegre holding a narrow lead.

With no runoff in Paraguay, the president will be chosen on April 30 with a plurality of votes, as will all 80 deputies and 45 senators in Congress, 17 governorships, and all state assembly seats. Legislators, unlike presidents, can run for reelection. The next president will be inaugurated on August 15, 2023 for a five-year term. Voting is compulsory in Paraguay for the 5 million registered voters between 18 and 75, and Paraguayans living abroad can vote, though to do so is a complicated procedure. Of the 2 million Paraguayans in Argentina, about 31,000 are registered.

 AS/COA explores the election, including major issues, parties, candidates, and polling.

The Issues

What will Paraguayans consider when they head to the polls? Corruption sits high on the list, per Atlas Intel’s March 2023 poll; over 65 percent of respondents ranked it as one of the country’s top three issues. Paraguay continues to rank among the lowest in Latin America in the Capacity to Combat Corruption index released by AS/COA and Control Risks. 

Beyond corruption, those polled picked a suite of economic issues as top concerns, with 29 percent choosing unemployment, 19 percent selecting poverty and social inequality, and 13 percent naming inflation. Paraguay’s poverty rate was 27 percent in 2020 and its GDP per capita was $15,000 in 2021— the lowest in the Southern Cone. Last year, Paraguay’s GDP experienced a 0.8 percent contraction. The current and future governments will have to contend with inflation, which Fitch predicts will hit 7.1 percent this year. 

Voters are also worried about security, with 40 percent ranking it as a top issue. The country faces major challenges with organized crime and is a hub for drug and cigarette smuggling, as well as human trafficking. Rising drug trafficking has fed street violence, especially in border regions, and fueled concerns about runaway crime.  

Santiago Peña, Colorado Party

The Colorado Party has lost only one presidential election—in 2008—over the past eight decades. Its long reign can be attributed to a powerful political machine built in the aftermath of a 35-year dictatorship and its support for traditional values in a largely Catholic country. The biggest portion of the population—about 40 percent of the electorate—is registered with the Colorado Party, with the remainder divided among the various opposition parties. 

But this time around, the Colorado Party faces hurdles. Abdo Benítez, who took office in 2018, has an approval rating of just 18.6 percent, and his party is racked by scandals. An October 2022 report by Paraguay’s Congress calls party head and ex-President Horacio Cartes (2013–2018)—who has faced myriad accusations of money laundering, drug trafficking, and cigarette smuggling—the "architect of the illicit trafficking of tobacco products in the region." One of his companies, the tobacco firm Tabesa, has been tied to a network whose tentacles may include the FARC, the Sinaloa Cartel, and Hezbollah, as well as to large, questionable money transfers to accounts in places such as the Cayman Islands and North Korea. On March 23, Paraguay’s attorney general opened an investigation into Washington’s allegations against both Cartes and Velázquez.

Despite the allegations, Cartes, a well-known business mogul in the country, remains the party’s president. Discord over the scandals have contributed to splitting Colorado into two factions, one—Honor Colorado—led by Cartes and the other—Republican helmed by Abdo Benítez's side. In the December party primary, Cartes’ handpicked candidate, Peña, became the nominee, beating out Republican Force’s Arnoldo Wiens, who served in Abdo Benítez’s cabinet. Still, the factions continue to fight; in February 2022, Abdo Benítez’s interior minister released information linking Cartes to money laundering networks, while in July 2022 the president himself referred to Cartes—without naming him—as a cancer to Paraguay. The president, who faces corruption allegations himself, has not campaigned for the nominee, even saying in February that Peña is not the best candidate. The party’s success may hinge on its ability to act as a unified and coordinated electoral force, say various analysts

Peña is Cartes’ former finance minister and worked as an economist at the IMF. His platform centers around attracting foreign investment, keeping taxes low, and trying to reduce Paraguay’s high foreign debt. He supports maintaining Paraguay’s position as the only country in South America that maintains full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. “We see the geopolitical triangle between Washington, Jerusalem, and Taipei as a tool for Paraguay’s development,” Peña told CNN.

Peña’s running mate is former Deputy Pedro Alliana, who once served as the president of the Colorado Party.

Efraín Alegre, Concertación

The Concertación coalition features 23 parties and two movements from across the political spectrum united in opposition to the Colorado Party. Its selection is three-time presidential candidate and lawyer Efraín Alegre, who won the December coalition primary. Most polls have Alegre narrowly ahead of Peña, though within a margin that is too close to call. 

Alegre is the PLRA’s president and he served as minister of public works and communications under leftist President Fernando Lugo (2008–2012). His electoral pitch is focused on anti-corruption; the choice is between “the mafia or the homeland,” as he put it. He accuses the Colorado Party’s political machine of clientelism and Cartes of financing party activity with organized crime money.

Alegre has focused his economic pitch on the need to balance the national budget, saying he favors austerity policies over raising taxes, and says he would seek to cut tax evasion and reduce labor informality. Alegre has proposed a plan he dubs Living Without Fear, which involves bolstering security by increasing the number of street cameras and police officers. 

On foreign affairs, Alegre has promised to ditch Taiwan to open up Paraguay’s soy and beef sectors to China’s markets. He has also proposed involving Lugo in building relationships with regional presidents, especially those on the left. 

Alegre’s running mate Soledad Núñez served as Paraguay’s housing minister from 2014 to 2018 and, at 31, was the country’s youngest minister of the executive branch. Paraguay has never elected a woman president or vice president.

Other Candidates

Peña and Alegre lead polls, but there are 11 other presidential candidates. Two of them, Paraguayo “Payo” Cubas and Euclides Acevedo, are polling above 5 percent and could sap votes from either of the main players’ constituents. 

Polling third, Cubas leads the National Crusade Party (PCN). He is a prominent political and media personality, as well as a lawyer. Although he was the only PCN member elected to the Senate in 2018, he was suspended in 2019 for outbursts and physical altercations. In 2016, Cubas was arrested for hitting a judge and defecating in his office

Cubas, who defines himself as a romantic anarchist, stated that he would convene a National Constituent Convention if elected. Cubas has decried corruption, and he is also in favor of shrinking the government and legalizing marijuana

Coming in fourth in polling, Acevedo served as the country’s minister of foreign affairs (2021–2022) following a stint as interior minister (2019–2021). He resigned from Abdo Benítez’s cabinet in April 2022 to join the 2023 presidential race for the New Republic movement. A leftist, Acevedo said he would put more money behind intelligence services to combat organized crime, decentralize the healthcare system, and push forward policies that increase inclusion and tackle climate change

Congressional and Local Elections

Currently, the Colorado Party holds a simple majority in the Chamber of Deputies with 42 out of 80 seats. In the Senate, it holds 17 of 45 seats. The Colorado’s congressional bench helped Abdo Benítez avoid impeachment during his presidency. The second-largest force in both chambers is the PLRA, with 30 of 80 seats in the lower house and 13 of 45 seats in the Senate. 

The PLRA’s power in the new Congress may depend on the general performance of the Concertación. The coalition will present its own candidate list for each electoral district while parties within the coalition, which range from center-right to leftist in ideology, will also run their own individual candidate lists concurrently. The Concertación’s success hinges on its ability to stay unified in the campaign, during the election, and after it. 

Members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected from each of Paraguay’s 17 states and its federal district. Senators are elected nationally. In either election, parties present lists of candidates for each electoral district and voters elect a party slate. However, this will be the first national election where voters can choose a preferred candidate from the party list, making it more likely that a candidate will be elected. This system was allowed in the 2021 municipal elections and it made it more likely for candidates to develop platforms separate from that of their party. 

Aside from the legislature, Paraguayans will also elect 17 governors and 246 members of state assemblies. Currently, 13 of the 17 governors are members of the Colorado Party.