A former Marxist guerrilla who has promised to continue the government’s popular social programs is poised to win El Salvador’s presidential election runoff today and give the ruling party a second consecutive term in power.
Most polls show Salvador Sanchez Ceren, 69, of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) holding a lead ranging from 10 to 18 percentage points over San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, the candidate of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA.
Quijano, 67, campaigned with Cold War references to the country’s 12-year civil war, in which the US backed San Salvador against the FMLN to stop the spread of communism in Latin America.
Quijano said that Sanchez Ceren, one of the top rebel commanders at the time, would take the Central American country down a communist path and invoked images of Venezuela’s late socialist president Hugo Chavez.
“The FMLN’s proposals are based in giving the country’s sovereignty to Venezuela,” he said during the campaign.
Yet analysts say the strategy has backfired in a country of 6 million people more concerned with gang violence and a sluggish economy than with the ghosts of the past.
“[It] only works with one sector of society, the most conservative one in Salvadorean society, which is still afraid of an electoral victory by the FMLN,” political analyst Alvaro Artiga said.
Sanchez Ceren said he will take a moderate approach to government like that of his political role model, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, another former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, even after a 2012 gang truce that has been billed as having halved the country’s daily average of 14 dead — the majority of whom are gang members.
Salvadorean President Mauricio Funes, a former TV journalist who did not participate in the war, was the first FMLN candidate to be elected in 2009, unseating decades of ARENA governments, but Sanchez Ceren would be the first true guerrilla to lead the country.
He helped negotiate the 1992 Peace Accords that ended a conflict that left 76,000 dead and 12,000 missing, and has since campaigned door to door as his party worked to paint ARENA as the party of corruption.
Funes has been pushing for the investigation of former Salvadorean president Francisco Flores, who was of ARENA and served as Quijano’s campaign manager, over the destination of millions in aid he received from Taiwan while in power.
Quijano criticized Funes for negotiating with criminals to strike the truce between the nation’s two largest and most dangerous gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street.
After an initial drop in killings last year, murders have been on the rise again so far this year. According to police, between Jan. 1 and March 1, there have been 501 murders, 106 more than in the same period last year. In addition, many dead are starting to be discovered in mass graves, fueling criticism that the truce did nothing more than cause the gangs to hide their victims and create the illusion of less crime.
Sanchez Ceren said he will fight crime by boosting community investment, better education and fortified police. He also plans to continue Funes’ social programs, including giving books, shoes and uniforms to school children, seeds and fertilizers to the poorest farmers and a small pension to the elderly.
Quijano said he would deploy the army to fight street gangs and has proposed giving military training to all men between 18 and 30 who are unemployed and not in school.
Although he initially criticized Funes’ social programs, Quijano says he would continue them too.