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By Daniela Desantis and Hilary Burke
ASUNCION (Reuters) - Millionaire businessman Horacio Cartes of Paraguay's powerful Colorado Party was seen winning Sunday's presidential election by a wide margin, according to exit polls.
Cartes, 56, is a political novice who never even voted before joining the center-right Colorado Party four years ago. He has vowed to reform his party, which was tainted by corruption during its 60-year reign through 2008.
His main rival is Efrain Alegre, 50, a lawyer and career politician in the ruling center-right Liberal Party, which took over the presidency after withdrawing support for President Fernando Lugo and clearing the way for his impeachment in June.
Congress ousted Lugo, a leftist and former Roman Catholic bishop, after finding him guilty of mishandling a botched land eviction in which 17 police officers and peasant farmers were killed. Some of Paraguay's neighbors likened the two-day trial to a coup and imposed diplomatic sanctions on the South American nation.
On Sunday, an exit poll by First Analisis y Estudios showed Cartes winning with 50.8 percent of votes versus 37 percent for Alegre. Pollster Ati Snead's survey indicated Cartes had won 44.4 percent of votes and Alegre 37.9 percent.
A third exit poll showed Cartes with a nearly 21 percentage point lead over Alegre at 53.5 percent of votes, according to the Institute for Communication and Art.
"I think the new government's priority has to be education and also the economy ... and they should steal less," Marcela, a 30-year-old teacher who declined to give a last name, said after voting in an upper-middle class section of the capital, Asuncion.
Nearly 40 percent of Paraguay's 6.6 million people are poor. The landlocked country relies on soybean and beef exports, but it is also notorious for contraband trade and illicit financing.
One of Paraguay's wealthiest men, Cartes primarily made his fortune in the financial and tobacco industries. Rivals have tried to link him to drug running and money laundering, but he has never been charged with those crimes.
"The accusations made during this campaign have no truth to them, and personally I am very serene," the typically brash and outspoken Cartes told reporters early on Sunday.
Alegre, a more somber politician, led corruption probes in Congress. But his reputation as an honest administrator was undermined by an investigation into whether he misappropriated state funds while serving as Lugo's public works minister.
"My leadership model is different from the traditional one. My project represents a 'decent Paraguay' versus the 'Paraguay of the mafias,'" Alegre told Reuters in a recent interview.
Polls were open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. (1100 to 2000 GMT) and international observers said they had received no fraud complaints by midday.
There is no second round of balloting so the presidential candidate who captures the most votes wins. Voters also elected local authorities and members of Congress.
Paraguay's current president, Federico Franco, is barred by the constitution from running for re-election even though he is just serving out what remained of Lugo's five-year term. He will hand over the presidency in August.
If Cartes' victory is confirmed, Paraguay will have a right-leaning government, bucking the trend in South America where leftists have made steady gains in recent years. Only Colombia and Chile are ruled by conservatives.
(Reporting by Daniela Desantis Hilary Burke; Additional reporting by Mariel Cristaldo and Miguel Lobianco; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Eric Beech)
Cartes leads official presidential vote count in Paraguay
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