Paraguay holds key presidential election

ASUNCION - Voters in Paraguay are electing a new president in a poll seen as key to restoring the country's democratic credentials.

Horacio Cartes, of the conservative Colorado Party, and the centre-right Liberal Party's Efrain Alegre are seen as front-runners among 10 candidates.

The country's standing dipped in the region after last year's disputed impeachment of President Fernando Lugo.

The South American blocs Unasur and Mercosur both suspended Paraguay.

They cited a "rupture in the democratic order".

The impeachment followed a land eviction at a farm last June that led to the deaths of 11 farmers and six police officers.

The incident sparked a nationwide outcry and the opposition declared President Lugo responsible.

Mr Lugo, a left-wing former Roman Catholic bishop, was impeached and replaced by Vice-President Federico Franco of the Liberal Party in less than 48 hours.

When a near unanimous vote blamed the president's handling of the crisis for the deaths, neighbouring countries recalled their diplomats citing a "congressional coup".
'Vital problem'

Polling is under way with voting due to end at 16:00 local time (20:00 GMT). Preliminary results are expected five hours after voting ends.

The country is choosing a new president and vice-president, 45 senators, 80 members of the lower house and 17 state governors.

Polls are being closely monitored by international organisations, with more than 500 observers from Unasur, the European Union and the Organizsation of American States present, electoral authorities say.

"The world will see that Paraguay is a country that elects its authorities democratically, solving a vital problem for the people, that is, rejoining the international bodies," Uruguayan MP Daniel Pena, who will be acting as an observer for the Mercosur parliament, told Paraguay's IP news agency.

Just over 3.5 million of the nation's 6.6 million citizens are eligible for the mandatory vote.

The electoral tribunal's president, Alberto Ramirez Zambonini, appealed for participation in Sunday's election.

"For five years, others take decisions for us. This is the chance citizens have to choose [who they are]," Mr Ramirez told journalists.

Mr Cartes' Colorado party governed Paraguay for 35 years, acting as the main allies of the military ruler Gen Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989.

Mario Ferreiro, a popular TV journalist, and the left-leaning doctor Anibal Carrillo Iramain, are other key candidates.

Landlocked Paraguay is one of South America's poorest countries, with an economy highly dependent on agricultural exports. It has long-standing corruption problems.

Its GDP shrank 0.5% last year, although forecasts predict double-digit growth for 2013.

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