Paraguay election result calms fear of another Taiwan ally falling (for now)
By Lucinda Elliott
ASUNCION (Reuters) - News of Santiago Pena's election victory in Paraguay will be cheered by officials in Taiwan, which faces an uphill battle against China's economic muscle to keep its remaining 13 allies worldwide, including its last in South America.
Pena, who scored a sizeable win in Sunday's presidential ballot, pledged throughout the election campaign to defend Paraguay's almost 70-year diplomatic relations with democratically-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own.
Opposition rival Efrain Alegre, however, indicated his preference would be to switch ties to China to gain access to the country's huge markets for Paraguay's soy and beef farmers, the main drivers of its exports and economy.
"This is a relief to Taipei," a senior European diplomat told Reuters in Asuncion asking not to be named. "It gives them the easier option."
Taiwan's embassy in Paraguay congratulated Pena for winning the election and said it would continue to work on the two countries' "fruitful relationship".
However, pressure inside the South American nation to shift allegiance is likely to keep rising, especially from its powerful agricultural lobby that wants to open up China's lucrative markets to Paraguay's soybeans and beef.
"We will continue to make our position known because the numbers talk. We are making potential losses," Pedro Galli from Paraguay's Rural Association told Reuters shortly after the result, adding the group's pro-China stance remained firm.
Pena's victory - and a strong performance in congressional elections by the ruling conservatives - has dampened hopes of a swift foreign policy shift, Galli said. "Our next president wants to strengthen relations with Taiwan further."
Some analysts have said Pena's support for Taiwan may come under pressure as Paraguay needs to shrink a large fiscal deficit and rev up the economy. He may also not have the same bond with Taiwan as current President Mario Abdo, whose father was involved in establishing ties in the 1950s.
Rubén Ramírez, a former foreign minister for Paraguay told Reuters that discussions over the Taiwan relationship must remain a priority when the new government is sworn in.
"There has to be a degree of consensus among the private sector, farm producers and the political class," he said.
Wang Ting-yu, a senior lawmaker with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party who sits on parliament's foreign affairs committee, wrote on social media that Pena's win was a victory for Taipei, but that it "could not lower its guard".
"After all, the severing of diplomatic relations with Taiwan and turning to China has caused discussion in Paraguayan society and there is considerable support for it," he wrote.
"China will inevitably find cracks to expand its influence. Taiwan's diplomacy has no cause to relax."
(Reporting by Lucinda Elliott; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Barbara Lewis)