Tue, Mar 17, 2009 - Page 7 News List

El Salvador election breaks 20 years of conservative rule


A leftist television journalist won El Salvador’s presidential elections, bringing a party of former guerrillas to power for the first time since a bloody civil war and ending two decades of conservative rule.

Mauricio Funes, a moderate plucked from outside the ranks of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), became the latest leftist to rise to power in Latin America at a time of uncertainty over how US President Barack Obama will approach the region.

With 90 percent of the vote counted late on Sunday, Funes had 51 percent compared to 49 percent for Rodrigo Avila of the ruling conservative Arena party, said Walter Araujo, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Avila, accompanied by Salvadorean President Tony Saca, conceded defeat and wished Funes luck.

Funes, who reported on the 12-year war that killed 75,000 people and later hosted a popular interview show, promised to unite the country after one of the most polarizing campaigns since the conflict.

“This is the happiest night of my life and I want it to be the night of El Salvador’s greatest hope,” Funes said. “I want to thank all the people who voted for me and chose that path of hope, and change.”

Jubilant, red-clad Funes supporters poured into the streets of San Salvador, whooping, clapping, blowing whistles and waving large party flags. Colorful fireworks shot up into the night sky.

Funes, 49, rode a wave of discontent with two decades of Arena party rule that have brought economic growth, but done little to redress social inequalities. Fuel and food prices have soared, while powerful gangs extort businesses and fight for drug-dealing turf, resulting in one of Latin America’s highest homicides rates.

Funes promises to crack down on big businesses, which he says exploit government complacency to evade taxes.

“The time has come for the excluded, the opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity,” he told a rally of roaring supporters early yesterday.

Avila, 44, a former police chief, had warned that an FMLN victory would send El Salvador down a communist path and threaten the country’s warm relations with the US. He vowed on Sunday to lead “a vigilant opposition that would ensure that the country does not lose its liberties.”

Close US ties saw El Salvador keep troops in Iraq longer than any other Latin American country and become a hub of regional cooperation with Washington against drug trafficking. The country’s economy depends on billions of dollars sent home by 2.5 million Salvadoreans who live in the US.

The Obama government has assured Salvadoreans it would work with any leader elected — a marked departure from the Bush administration, which in 2004 suggested that an FMLN victory would hurt ties.

But US relations with some leftist leaders remain tense, including fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who lashed out last week at the US for holding back aid over an election dispute.

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