ASUNCION (AFP) — Leftist former bishop Fernando Lugo won Paraguay's presidential vote Sunday, beating rival Blanca Ovelar by 39-33 percent and ending her Colorado Party's 61-year rule in government, according to official preliminary results.
Lino Oviedo, 64, a retired army chief who helped stage a coup that ended the 35-year miltiary dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, trailed in third place with 21 percent, according to the Electoral Tribunal's Quick Preliminary Result Broadcast hotline (TREP).
Lugo, addressing jubilant supporters at his campaign headquarters, said the election showed that "the little people can also win."
"You are responsible for the happiness of the majority of the Paraguayan people today," he said as supporters chanted his name. "This is the Paraguay I dream about, with many colors, many faces, the Paraguay of everyone."
Exit polls earlier gave Lugo, 56, a 43-37 percent lead over Ovelar, 51, of the ruling Colorado Party who was vying to be Paraguay's first woman president. Oviedo had 16 percent, according to ABC/Nanduti radio.
There is no runoff vote in Paraguay.
Polling stations in this landlocked South American nation of six million people were open nine hours, in an election that also selected a new congress.
The left-leaning opposition spearheaded by Lugo, 56, who was suspended from his religious order by the Vatican in late 2006 for his entry into politics, had feared fraud would mar the vote.
But as 70 observers from the Organization of American States monitored ballot stations, electoral court chief Rafael Dendia said voting went smoothly.
Former Colombian President Alfredo Pastrana, one of the observers, said turnout in the election among the 2.9 million eligible voters was high: "it's going to reach 60, 65 and hopefully even 70 percent."
Lugo supporters began celebrating their anticipated victory setting off fireworks one and a half hour after polls were closed.
The Colorado Party has been in power since 1947, including 35 years of Stroessner rule from 1954 to 1989. Paraguay chose its first democratically-elected president in 1993.
Outgoing President Nicanor Duarte constitutionally could not seek re-election after serving a five-year term.
International Transparency, an organization monitoring for voter fraud, reported some cases of corruption.
"We've seen voting cards being bought and money going around in some polling booths," one of the group's observers, Pilar Callizo, told Channel 4.
"We also saw Colorado Party teams inside and outside some polling stations creating an atmosphere of intimidation," she added.
Lugo's opponents have said he is in line with leftwing presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.
But Lugo, while championing the rights of the poor, says he is more centrist as he seeks to overhaul a country with a per-capita income of just 1,900 dollars.
Ovelar, 51, a former education minister and the first woman to run for Paraguay's presidency, had asked voters to show her the same consideration as her male counterparts.
"If I lose the election, I will accept the result. But I ask for the same openness and the same objectivity as the other candidates," she said last week.
Oviedo was released from his last stint behind bars last September by a court that found he had been the victim of political persecution, leaving him able to pursue his long-held ambition of becoming head of state.
While Paraguay's formal economy relies on agriculture, corruption is pervasive.
Duarte made little headway in stamping out graft, which also sullied his own administration. Paraguay is a prime source of contraband electronics and cigarettes, most smuggled into neighboring Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia.
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