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Two centre-right candidates face off in Paraguay vote

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguayans will vote for a new president on Sunday. Two centre-right candidates are vying for the top job after the left's brief spell in power was cut short by the sudden impeachment of President Fernando Lugo last year.

Both contenders in the poor, soy-and-beef-exporting country in the heart of South America hope to restore normal diplomatic and trade ties with neighbouring nations that protested against Lugo's ouster.

Following are profiles of the two top candidates:

POLITICAL NEWCOMER

Horacio Cartes, a political newcomer and millionaire businessman, is shown by most polls as the front-runner. He is leading the Colorado Party's efforts to regain its grip on power, which was unbroken for more than six decades before Lugo's election in 2008.

Cartes, 56, started his political career four years ago, affiliating himself with the Colorados and working quickly to convince his peers that he would put the best new face on the party. Before that, he had never even voted.

One of Paraguay's wealthiest men, Cartes has been questioned even within his own party over accusations by political rivals that link him to money laundering and drug running. He has never been convicted of a crime and denies any wrongdoing.

He says the charges against him over illegal currency dealings, brought during General Alfredo Stroessner's 35-year rule that ended in 1989, amounted to scapegoating.

In 2011, WikiLeaks published a diplomatic cable that referred to a regional drug-trafficking ring that supposedly included some of his companies. Cartes publicly denied ever being involved in illicit activities.

The outspoken candidate is against abortion and same-sex marriage. He made statements recently referring to heterosexuality as "normality" and said: "Let's stay normal."

He studied aviation in the United States and embarked on his business career upon returning to Paraguay, first in the financial sector and later in the tobacco business.

He is now the majority shareholder in about 25 companies including Paraguay's biggest cigarette maker, a bank, a soft drink factory and ranching establishments that export beef.

He is a father of three and is separated from his wife.

RULING PARTY'S HOPE

Efrain Alegre is a lawyer and long-time politician in the ruling, centre-right Liberal Party, which took over the presidency last year when Congress impeached Lugo. Lugo, who described himself as a socialist, had been backed by a coalition of leftist parties and the Liberal party.

Alegre served as Lugo's public works minister until he was fired in 2011 for revealing too early his plan to run for president. His candidacy got a late boost with the backing of the right-wing UNACE party, whose leader, retired general Lino Oviedo, died in a helicopter crash in February.

Alegre, 50, earned a reputation as a serious and honest administrator during his years working for Paraguay's biggest regional government and later as a legislator and minister.

But his image is not entirely untarnished. He is currently under investigation for allegedly misappropriating funds when, as minister, he awarded public works projects to companies that declared bankruptcy soon after receiving millions of dollars in advance payments from the state.

Alegre has said he fully complied with the bidding requirements, noting the companies did not drop the projects until after he left the ministry.

As a teenager, Alegre was active in Catholic youth groups before joining the Liberal Party, which has dominated Paraguayan politics along with the Colorado Party during the last century.

In Congress, he helped spur corruption investigations, including an illicit enrichment inquiry involving former President Luis Gonzalez Macchi and his wife.

Married with four children, Alegre is backed by some important business groups and he has promised to open up state companies to private participation and issue more international debt to finance infrastructure projects.

(Reporting by Daniela Desantis and Mariel Cristaldo; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130418/two-centre-right-candidates-face-paraguay-vote