New Paraguay president sworn-in amid ruling party rift

Hugo OLAZAR
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Paraguay's new President Mario Abdo Benitez (L), receives the presidential sash from Congress leader Silvio Ovelar next to his wife Silvana Lopez Moreira during his inauguration ceremony in Asuncion, on August 15, 2018

Mario Abdo Benitez took office Wednesday as Paraguay's new president, four months after playing down close family ties with the South American country's late dictator to win a tight election race.

The 46-year-old conservative took the oath of office at a ceremony in the capital Asuncion, attended by hundreds of dignitaries including seven heads of state.

He pledged to work with the opposition to push through reforms, but will also have to overcome divisions within his own Colorado ruling party -- a rift so deep that outgoing president Horacio Cartes skipped the ceremony.

"I hope I can demonstrate through my conduct that I will be a leader who considers the future of his country, in whom you can trust," he said.

He also expressed solidarity with the peoples of Nicaragua and Venezuela and Nicaragua. "In the face of abuses of power, our libertarian voices will not be silent, Paraguay will not remain indifferent to the suffering of these fraternal peoples."

- Stroessner Aide -

Abdo Benitez's father was a top aide to feared dictator Alfredo Stroessner and was also a distant cousin of the general.

The business-friendly former senator said his April election victory had shown that Paraguayans had turned the page on the darkest chapter of their recent history.

He said he would largely maintain Cartes' economic policies, which have led to consistent growth, due mainly to buoyant soybean and beef exports. The IMF has forecast growth of 4.5 percent in 2018 and 2019.

But the outgoing government showed little progress in alleviating a poverty rate running at 26.4 percent and endemic corruption, with Paraguay languishing 135th out of 180 countries ranked by Transparency International.

The presidential inauguration came a week after thousands took part in street protests in Asuncion against political corruption.

He campaigned on a pledge to tackle corruption in the judicial system.

- Party problems -

One of his priorities will be healing the wounds within the ruling Colorado party, in power almost continuously since 1947. Seven Colorado senators and 20 MPs joined Cartes' boycott of the ceremony.

The factions clashed last year over Cartes' unsuccessful bid to change the constitution to allow him another term.

"His party finds itself deeply divided and the opposition can back him if his projects are genuine, democratic and if they show that his government is liberal," opposition Liberal Party leader Miguel Abdon Saguier told AFP.

The Colorado party has a minority in Congress, with 41 of 80 seats in the lower house but only 17 of 45 seats in the senate.

The divisions rob Abdo Benitez of important momentum during his crucial first months in office, analysts said.

"This is a key time, important for any government, Abdo is going to have to build legitimacy," Argentine analyst Daniel Montoya told AFP.

Among the regional heads of state and other dignitaries at the inauguration was Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who said in a Tweet he had taken the opportunity to thank Cartes for moving Paraguay's embassy to Jerusalem.

It became the third country to do so in May, after the United States and Guatemala.

Before his death in Brazil in 2006, Stroessner was accused by human rights groups of up to 3,000 killings and disappearances during his 1954-1989 rule.