The son of a former top aide to ex-dictator Alfredo Stroessner was elected president of Paraguay on Sunday in voting that was much closer than projected, according to official results.
With 99.4 percent of the vote counted, Mario Abdo Benitez, 46, a U.S.-educated construction executive who ran under the banner of the long-dominant Colorado Party, had received 46.44 percent of the vote.
That gave him a less-than 4-point lead over his chief challenger, Efrain Alegre Sasiain, who represented a coalition of center-left parties known as the Alianza Ganar, or Win Alliance. Alegre garnered 42.74 percent of the vote, according to official results.
The nation's electoral authority declared that Abdo's lead was "irreversible."
Abdo celebrated his victory, but there was no immediate concession speech from his top rival.
"We hope to be the true protagonists of a democracy that is more and more solid every day," Abdo told a crowd waving the Paraguayan tricolor and the red flag of the Colorado Party here in the capital.
The margin of victory was much slimmer than many had anticipated. Some polls indicated that Abdo would win by 20 points or more. The narrow margin points to deep divisions in Paraguay and suggests that the opposition's demands for a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth resonated with many voters in this landlocked nation of 6.8 million.
"This very close result shows the fundamental necessity of a political dialogue to achieve governability," said Jose Maria Costa, a political analyst here. "Especially when we have here in Paraguay urgent challenges, such as the need to reduce poverty, elevate the quality of social services and strengthen institutions."
Paraguay has enjoyed an economic boom in recent years, largely because of a surge in exports of commodities, especially soybeans. But more than one-quarter of the population remains mired in poverty, concentrated in rural areas. Many government critics back a proposal to impose a 10% tax on soybean exports as a means to reduce poverty.
Abdo is the son of the former private secretary of ex-strongman Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay for 35 years until he was forced into exile in neighboring Brazil in 1989. Stroessner's regime, a Cold War ally of Washington, was notorious for the imprisonment, killings and "disappearances" of opponents and alleged Communist sympathizers.
But Abdo has disassociated himself from the toxic Stroessner legacy and says he is committed to democracy and human rights.
He ran on a conservative, pro-business platform and backed Paraguay's current regimen of low taxes and an emphasis on the export market. The opposition called for higher taxes.
Abdo is now slated to succeed the current chief executive, Horacio Cartes, also of the Colorado Party, and begin a five-year term in August.
Special correspondent D'Alessandro reported from Asuncion and Times Staff Writer McDonnell from Mexico City.