San Salvador: El Salvador’s FMLN party of former Marxist guerrillas almost certainly won a presidential election on Sunday that split the country along old civil war fault lines.
Mauricio Funes, a former TV journalist and candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, claimed victory after results showed he had 51.3% of the vote with over 90% of returns counted.
Jubilant leftists let off fireworks and gathered at a monument in the capital, waving flags and singing.
Rodrigo Avila of the conservative ARENA party, which has ruled El Salvador since 1989, trailed with 48.7% support. He did not concede defeat publicly but an FMLN spokesman said Avila called Funes to congratulate him.
It would be a historic victory for the left after an election campaign that split the small Central American nation, where memories of the 1980-92 civil war that killed 75,000 people are still strong.
“My party, the FMLN, has shown to the whole world it is ready for a new government,” Funes said in a victory speech. He called for reconciliation with the ARENA, whose founder was linked to right-wing death squads during the war.
A victory for the ex-guerrillas would boost a growing group of left-wing presidents in Latin America, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
But Funes says he is a moderate who will maintain El Salvador’s close ties with Washington even though the United States spent billions in supporting right-wing governments in their fight against the FMLN during the civil war.
ARENA has held office since 1989 and kept the coffee-exporting Central American country firmly in the pro-Washington camp, even sending troops to help US forces in Iraq.
But stubborn poverty and street crime have helped the FMLN, which laid down its weapons under a 1992 peace deal and set up a political party to seek power at the ballot box.
Tensions were running high after street clashes in recent days between militants from left and right. “The propaganda has been very ugly . Neither side is going to accept losing,” said voter Dora Acosta, 59.
Picking a candidate with no involvement in its guerrilla past gave the FMLN its best chance yet of ousting the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA.
Many voters want to join a shift to the left in Latin America, but others were nervous about handing power to a party schooled in Cuban-style socialism as an economic crisis bites.
Ruling party candidate Avila, a former national police chief, was a sniper with a paramilitary unit that fought with the army. He has admitted killing leftist rebels in the war, and expressed admiration for a death squad leader who founded ARENA.
With close ties to business, ARENA says it is qualified to handle an economic slowdown. In its 20 years in power it has built up big manufacturing and service sectors and adopted the U.S. dollar in a country that used to rely heavily on indigo and coffee exports.
Money from US
About a quarter of Salvadorans live in the United States — a close ally of a string of right-wing governments during and since the civil war — and the tiny nation relies heavily on the money they send home.
The government says as many as 40,000 Salvadorans may have flown in from the United States to vote.
But remittances and US demand for Salvadoran factory goods are waning with the recession.
Funes, who used to host political talk shows critical of ARENA governments, vows to crack down on corruption and tax evasion and use the funds to create jobs and ease poverty.
He pledges to soothe the blow from the global economic crisis with policies to help the poor, while seeking friendly ties with business leaders and Washington, the FMLN’s old foe.
He says he is a pro-business moderate, but his running mate, Salvador Sanchez, is an FMLN hard-liner who could take policy to the left and align the country with leftist governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“If Funes wins we’ll go backward 20 years. We’ll be totally in Chavez’s hands,” said tourist operator Carlos Palomo, 36.
The FMLN has gained in recent congressional races as young voters grow angry at a lack of prospects. Living costs have soared in recent years, and the failure to make ends meet is feeding violent street gangs.
“I voted for (Funes) because the poor stick with the poor, because we want a change,” said drinks vendor Carlos Crespin.