Polls close as Paraguay holds key presidential election

Paraguay citizens vote Authorities say up to 70% of the 3.5m registered voters have attended the polls

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Polls have now closed in Paraguay in an election seen as key to restoring the country's democratic credentials.

Exit polls suggest Horacio Cartes, of the conservative Colorado Party, holds a winning lead over the centre-right Liberal Party's Efrain Alegre. Official results are due in the next hours.

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".

'Twice as serious'

Mr Alegre has accused the vice-president of the Electoral Court, Jose Manuel Morales, of foul play for suggesting as votes were being cast that the Liberals would lose the elections.

Paraguay presidential candidates Efrain Alegre (L) and Horacio Cartes Paraguay presidential candidates Efrain Alegre (L) and Horacio Cartes are seen as front-runners

"It's one of the members of the body responsible for preventing electoral violations. Therefore, it's twice as serious," a Liberal spokesman told local news website, Ultima Hora.

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

International organisations, with more than 500 observers from Unasur, the European Union and the Organisation of American States monitored the elections, authorities say.

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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