Paraguay - Election outlook with six weeks to go
It's a toss-up, which is remarkable in the region's current anti-incumbent environment.
Paraguay’s election on April 30 is a toss-up. The current political and economic environment clearly plays against the incumbent Colorado Party (ANR) and its candidate Santiago Peña. President Abdo’s approval ratings are very low. There are internal party divisions and corruption scandals. The global and regional anti-incumbent environment have given victories to opposition parties in every fair presidential election since 2019.
And yet, this is the Colorado Party, a political machine that has only lost one presidential election in the last eight decades (granted, during that time frame there were years of dictatorship in which fair elections weren’t held, but the point still stands). They have a political base, and the ability to turn out votes, and they don’t always play cleanly. In addition, a divided opposition with multiple outsider candidates is pulling votes away from Peña’s main opponent, Efraín Alegre of the Partido Liberal Radical Autentico (PLRA).
So while the fundamentals of this election should lead to an opposition victory, betting against the Colorado Party is never a smart money play.
In the presidential race, the winner must earn a plurality of the votes (there is no runoff). In addition to the president, the April 30 election will also decide all 80 members of the lower house of congress, all members of the senate, and all governors and assembly members for the country’s departments.
Assessing electoral polls in Paraguay is challenging given how few there are and some questionable methodology by lesser known pollsters. The more experienced pollsters’ also have known political ties that biases what numbers they release. Recent polling from Ati Snead shows Peña with a 10-point lead over Efraín Alegre of the Partido Liberal Radical Autentico (46 percent to 36 percent), though the pollster has suspected ties with the Colorado party. Meanwhile, another pollster with connections to the opposition, GEO, gave Alegre a narrow lead over Peña in late February. Polling from FaSac, which likely has a pro-Peña bias given their performance in the primaries, has Peña up 43-32 over Alegre. Whatever their bias, nearly all of the polls we’ve seen almost certainly underestimate the number of undecided voters, something that increases the potential for polling errors and late swings in public opinion changing the outcome. The only poll that has a large number of undecided voters is Datos, in which Alegre leads 33-30 with another 20 percent undecided.
The international sanctions and corruption allegations against former president Horacio Cartes’ have played a major role in the campaign, but their effect has not been a knockout blow to the ANR. Cartes was sanctioned by the United States in July for “involvement in significant corruption” and “[obstructing] a major international investigation into transnational crime in order to protect himself and his criminal associate from potential prosecution and political damage.” President Mario Abdo has made no secret of his dislike for Peña, even advising voters publicly last month to close their eyes to be able to stomach having to vote for Peña.
Even with that backhanded endorsement and voters’ overall anger at corruption, the sanctions are unlikely any additional outsize effect on the election. The Colorado party has actually capitalized on them to energize a more populist part of the party’s base that resents U.S. intervention. Peña has continued to publicly support Cartes, and these charges should be of no concern to his campaign unless Cartes is extradited before the election.
Peña’s most competitive opponent is Efraín Alegre of the Partido Liberal Radical Autentico, the Concertación candidate. Alegre comes from the opposition establishment and made unsuccessful presidential bids in both 2013 and 2018. While Alegre has the advantage of a stronger opposition coalition backing his campaign this year, he hardly has the personality or the novelty to be a compelling candidate. This represents an obstacle for mobilizing enough support to counter the reliable ANR machine.
As for the rest of the non-Concertación opposition, no candidate has yet gained traction to be within striking distance of winning the election. However, the two outsider candidates, Euclides Acevedo and Payo Cubas do have enough support to tip the scale between the two establishment candidates. At the moment, the general impression is that these candidates are dividing the opposition vote and helping Peña’s and the Colorado party’s chances of winning in a plurality election. If either of these candidates drops out late and endorses Alegre, it could swing the election to the opposition, but that does not appear likely given the campaign rhetoric up to now. The outsider candidates are playing for a late swing in voter sentiment, something that has occurred in several other Latin American elections in recent years. Given the anti-incumbent environment and how poorly Alegre has performed in the campaign up to now, they have few incentives to drop out in the weeks ahead.