El Salvador ex-rebel strongly placed to win run-off

Mon Feb 3, 2014 4:01am EST

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By Nelson Renteria and Michael O'Boyle
    SAN SALVADOR, Feb 3 (Reuters) - A former Marxist guerrilla
leader is in a strong position to win El Salvador's presidential
election in a run-off against his right-wing rival after falling
just shy of an outright win in the first round of voting on
Sunday.
    Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a top leader of the Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel army during El Salvador's
civil war, won 48.9 percent of votes in the first round, just
short of 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
    He will now face off on March 9 against Norman Quijano, the
conservative former mayor of San Salvador, who won 38.95 percent
of the vote and wants to deploy the army to fight powerful
street gangs.
    The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of El
Salvador's 12-year civil war in 1992, and it won power at the
last election in 2009. Sanchez Ceren was vice-president in the
government and his campaign was helped by its popular welfare
policies, including pensions and free school supplies.
    "We won the first round ...  we are sure that in the second
round we will win by more than 10 points," the 69-year-old
Sanchez Ceren told cheering supporters on Sunday night. 
    "We are going to work in the coming days to further unite,"
he added. "We are going to build new understandings, new
alliances."
    Sanchez Ceren appears to be in a very strong position ahead
of the run-off.
    
    The third-place candidate Antonio Saca, who was president
from 2004 until 2009, had about 11.4 percent support. 
    After he left office, Saca broke away from Quijano's
Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party. It is unclear
whether he will throw his support behind Sanchez Ceren in the
run-off or who his supporters will back.
    The Universidad Centroamericana estimates that while most of
Saca's supporters would likely opt for Quijano in a run-off,
around 25 percent would go with Sanchez Ceren, giving him enough
for victory.
    A Sanchez Ceren presidency would boost the influence of
Venezuela's socialist government as he has said he will seek to
join the South American oil giant's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which
furnishes allies, often leftists, with cheap energy. 
    
    POVERTY, VIOLENCE
    More than two decades after the end of the civil war, El
Salvador remains deeply divided between left and right and the
rise of violent street gangs has been spurred by persistent
poverty and sluggish economic growth.
    The country is more reliant on money sent home by migrants
working in the United States than any other country in Central
America. Those remittances make up nearly 20 percent of gross
domestic product.  
    Quijano's main campaign pledge has been to deploy the army
against the street gangs.
    Sanchez Ceren opposes the idea and is instead promising to 
forge a political pact to end the gridlock that has kept a
divided Congress from carrying out reforms to tackle crime and
weak economic growth.
    He also promises to fight tax evasion and eliminate
loopholes while introducing tax incentives to boost investment
in key industries, such as energy, and to renovate the capital's
airport and improve port facilities.    
    He was a rural teacher before the civil war but joined the 
FMLN and became one of its leading commanders as it fought a
series of U.S.-backed conservative governments. About 75,000
people were killed in the 12-year conflict.
    The FMLN has steadily won more supporters as it has toned
down some of its more radical left-wing policies and it won
power in 2009 when it put up a popular journalist, Mauricio
Funes, as its candidate. Unlike most FMLN leaders, Funes had no
role in the civil war.
    Sanchez Ceren's candidacy was seen by some as a risky move
but he has stressed his desire for national agreements with the
other parties and named a popular moderate as his candidate for
vice president.
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