In presidential vote, El Salvador picks between right and left

Agence France-Presse

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The next president's challenges include a crackdown on gang violence

EL SALVADOR DECIDES. Salvadoreans vote at a polling station during the presidential elections in San Salvador, El Salvador, 02 February 2014. Luis Galdamez/EPA

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Voters in El Salvador headed to the polls on Sunday, February 2, for elections to decide whether the poverty-stricken country will keep its leftist government in power or return to conservative rule.

This small but densely populated Central American country of six million is plagued by brazen gang violence and still burdened by the legacy of its bitter 1979-1992 civil war.

Amid tight security, some 4.9 million voters were called to choose a successor to President Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

While there are five candidates, two are far ahead in pre-election surveys.

The top contender is Funes’s vice president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former civil war guerrilla commander who on Sunday promised an inclusive government if he wins.

“We are committed to ensuring transparency” in the election, the ruling party candidate said as he and his wife went to cast ballots, promising to respect the results.

The 69-year-old added he would be “open to the participation of different sectors” and open the doors to all candidates to work together for “a grand national accord.”

His main rival, ex-San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, 67, of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), voted at a school in the west of the city, praising what he called “peaceful elections.”

However, his candidacy is being overshadowed by corruption allegations against an ARENA campaign adviser, ex-president Francisco Flores (1999-2009).

Antonio Saca, president from 2004 to 2009 who is running a distant third as the head of a coalition of right-wing parties, said he was “optimistic” as he cast his ballot.

The latest polls predict that Sanchez Ceren, a former teacher, will garner between 38% and 47% of votes – not enough to guarantee a first round victory.

If no candidate gets at least 50%, the top two will meet again in a runoff scheduled for March 9.

In an apparent quest to get out the vote, supporters of the various candidates set up stands in their party’s colors across the capital. Funes also urged his compatriots to cast ballots.

Crime a major test for winner

The next president’s challenges include a crackdown on gang violence. Known in the region as “maras,” the criminal groups control whole neighborhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.

Homicides were running at 14 per day until a gang truce in March 2012, which helped bring the rate down to seven per day.

Still, the “maras” are believed to have about 60,000 members, 10,000 of whom are behind bars.

Sanchez Ceren is proposing a program that would allow ex-gang members to rejoin society, while Quijano is calling for a tough law-and-order crackdown on crime.

With more than 40% of the population living in poverty, another major concern for many voters is making ends meet and securing their livelihood.

“Whoever wins needs to be aware that in this country the cost of living is high, there’s no work and the maras are harassing us – an overwhelming task awaits,” 41-year-old Argentina Campos told Agence France-Presse.

Noe Gonzalez, a retiree, raised similar demands.

“What we want from the next president is peace and work,” as well as more security, the 73-year-old said on the streets of the capital’s rough Mejicanos suburb.

If elected, Sanchez Ceren would be Latin America’s third ex-guerrilla president, following in the footsteps of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Uruguay’s Jose Mujica.

Polls opened at 7 am (1300 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 5 pm (2300 GMT). The first official results are expected around 10 pm (0400 GMT Monday), election officials said.

The new president is due to take office on June 1. –

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