ASUNCION, Paraguay -- After a roller-coaster campaign in which Paraguayans sometimes wondered if elections would be held at all, voters cast their ballots peacefully yesterday.
Yet polls closed amid the same confusion that had characterized the campaign, with one presidential candidate -- Domingo Laino, a longtime human rights activist -- claiming victory on national television, even as media exit polls gave a lead to his rival, Raul Cubas Grau, a wealthy engineer from the long-ruling Colorado Party.
By early evening yesterday, celebrants from both parties were taking to the streets, setting off fireworks and honking car horns. Paraguayans had cast their ballots hoping for a milestone in this small country's 187-year history: the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. And they had some reason for faith: While fraud has marred most past elections here, international observers said yesterday they had detected no serious irregularities.
Strong U.S. interest
The Clinton administration took a strong interest in Paraguay's elections, hoping this country of 5.7 million could consolidate its young democracy. U.S. officials also hoped to improve cooperation in fighting drug traffic here. They say Paraguay is a trans-shipment point for 1.5 tons of cocaine every month from the Andes to the rest of South America, Europe and the United States.
Although U.S. officials endorsed neither candidate, diplomats privately expressed concern about the close association between Cubas, 54, and retired Gen. Lino Oviedo, a convicted coup plotter.
But Cubas also drew clear advantage with voters from his constant identification with the popular, flamboyant Oviedo.
Known as the Bonsai Horseman for his short stature and equestrian skills, Oviedo was the Colorados' candidate until about three years ago. In 1996, a military court convicted Oviedo of a coup attempt the same year.
On April 17, the Supreme Court upheld Oviedo's conviction and he had to withdraw. Cubas, his running mate, took over. Cubas promised that if elected, he'd free Oviedo "as soon as possible" and give him an undefined role in his new administration.
"With Oviedo in government, the people will be in power," said Cubas, an unassuming-looking man with receding hair and a double chin, during a recent debate. "The people and Oviedo are one."
Yet Cubas has emphatically denied rumors that, if elected, he would free Oviedo and then call new elections in which Oviedo might run.
Among Cubas' other advantages was a well-oiled machine that mobilized Colorado voters for the past five decades of elections. Nor did it hurt Cubas that more than 90 percent of the 180,000 federal job-holders in this country belong to the Colorado Party. Many feared the loss of their livelihoods in an opposition administration.
Laino's strength, weakness
Laino, 62, a leading opposition activist during the 1954-89 dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, benefited from public dissatisfaction with alleged official corruption. He also drew strength from the new Democratic Alliance, in which opposition parties united for the first time.
Still, Laino is not highly popular, despite his recent term as a senator and his long, brave opposition to Stroessner.
"I liked Laino during Stroessner, but he hasn't done anything jTC since," said Carmen Drelichman, owner of a small store near the capital's ports.
Whoever wins yesterday's race will have to cope first with a serious economic crisis. Paraguay is in a deep recession, its currency having lost more than 20 percent of its dollar value just in the past year. And neither candidate has seemed willing to confront what economists call the greatest drain on the treasury: the 180,000-strong federal payroll. Both Laino and Cubas have vowed they would not fire any public employee.
Pub Date: 5/11/98