ASUNCION, Paraguay -- Paraguayans voted yesterday for a civilian president to end more than a half century of military government, but indecisive exit poll results produced confusion and tension as all three leading parties claimed victory.
The elections were the key to a democratic transition for this landlocked nation of 4.4 million people, ruled by dictators for most of its 182-year history. But doubts over the outcome grew as the ruling Colorado Party and the opposition waged a propaganda war over the uncertain results.
Paraguay's political leaders, fearing violent clashes, pulled their supporters off the streets last night, telling them to hold off celebrations until the official outcome of the race is known, Reuters reported.
Significant official returns were unavailable last night, and an unofficial vote count was delayed by the failure of telephone lines to the computer center where the count was being tabulated. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, leading an international delegation of election observers, asked President Andres Rodriguez to help get the lines restored, to no avail.
Non-governmental organizations conducting the unofficial count blamed the line failures on the government telephone company, a Colorado stronghold.
Such tactics are not unexpected in this poor and isolated nation where Gen. Alfredo Stroessner used rigged elections to monopolize the presidency from 1954 to 1989. Mr. Rodriguez led a bloody coup against General Stroessner in February 1989 and won a lopsided presidential election victory three months later.
Mr. Rodriguez, unlike General Stroessner, has vowed to give up power to civilians. His Colorado Party ran a civilian candidate, engineer Juan Carlos Wasmosy, yesterday.
Exit polls indicated that Mr. Wasmosy and two opposition candidates were locked in a tight race. The two other leading candidates in a field of nine were Domingo Laino of the Authentic Radical Liberal Party, an economist, and Guillermo Caballero of the new National Encounter Party, a businessman.
According to analysts, all three candidates are centrists who advocate similar programs of government reform and economic development based on free-market principles.