Cartes winning Paraguay presidential vote: exit polls

Millionaire businessman Horacio Cartes of the opposition Colorado Party was leading in Paraguay's presidential elections, exit polls showed Sunday.

Pollsters First Analysis y Estudios gave Cartes 50.8 percent against 37 percent for ruling party senator Efrain Alegre, and 5.1 percent for former TV host Mario Ferreiro of the leftist Avanza Pais (Country Moving Forward) movement.

ICA pollsters, in turn, gave Cartes 59.7 percent of the vote, Alegre 34.3 percent and Ferreiro 6.8 percent.

Voters were turning the page on a political crisis that saw leftist president Fernando Lugo impeached 10 months ago.

Cartes, a 56-year-old conservative tobacco baron, had been the favorite ahead of the Liberal Party's Efrain Alegre, 50.

They traded accusations of corruption and links to drug trafficking in a highly negative campaign.

The conservative Colorados held Paraguay's presidency for 60 years until being ousted by Lugo in 2008, thanks to a united liberal coalition.

A mostly rural country of 6.5 million bordered by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, Paraguay is seeking a replacement for Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop who was ousted 10 months ago by the opposition-controlled legislature after a police eviction of farmers left 17 people dead.

Lugo's administration was also rocked by a sex scandal, after he was forced to admit to having fathered two children out of wedlock while he was still a priest, and he faces at least two other as-yet unresolved paternity suits.

Now, the leftist coalition that swept him to power has split, although Lugo is again on the ballot -- this time as a Senate candidate.

Paraguay's 3.5 million voters are also casting ballots for the country's legislature and 17 governors.

Since Lugo's impeachment, Liberal Federico Franco has led the country. He is not seeking re-election.

Shortly before voting got under way, the president declared that he was prepared to honor the will of the Paraguayan voters.

"I will hand over power to whomever wins this elections," Franco said, adding that the process is needed to bolster Paraguay's badly battered institutions after months of political crisis.

Franco, Lugo's former vice president, took over as president in June. The inauguration for his successor is scheduled for August 15.

Most Latin American countries saw Lugo's impeachment as a legislative coup d'etat, and Paraguay's membership in the Mercosur common trade bloc and the Unasur regional group has been suspended.

During the election campaign, Alegre -- a self-styled crusader against crime and corruption -- highlighted Cartes's brief 1985 jail stint for his role in a currency smuggling affair, while Cartes accused Alegre of embezzling $25 million in government funds.

The leftist economist Alegre, 50, was an activist who fought passionately against the dictatorship of Paraguay's strongman, who ruled the country between 1954 and 1989.

By contrast, Cartes, one of Paraguay's wealthiest men, is a relative newcomer on the political scene. He did not join the Colorado party until 2009, and says he only voted for the first time the following year.

Paraguay is plagued by drug-trafficking, smuggling and pirating of copyrighted materials like music and movies, and corruption is pervasive.