Ex-guerrilla closes in on El Salvador election win

SAN SALVADOR Thu Mar 6, 2014 4:07pm EST

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, presidential candidate for the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), speaks to his supporters after the official results in San Salvador February 3, 2014. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, presidential candidate for the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), speaks to his supporters after the official results in San Salvador February 3, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero

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SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A former Marxist guerrilla leader looks poised to win El Salvador's presidential election runoff on Sunday as voters embrace his ruling party's social programs despite opposition allegations that he plans to veer the country to the radical left.

Polls show Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a top leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel army during the country's 1980-92 civil war, with about 55 percent support ahead of the runoff vote, enough to secure his party a second consecutive term.

His opponent Norman Quijano, the conservative former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, trails with about 45 percent amid waning support for his right-wing Arena party.

Quijano has warned the ex-rebel will move El Salvador to the radical left and bow to the influence of Latin America's leading U.S. antagonist, socialist-led Venezuela.

Sanchez Ceren, an affable but media-shy 69-year-old, denies those claims and has courted the vote of moderate conservatives who have broken with Arena.

He is also promising to expand social programs, such as free school supplies and pensions for the elderly, that have won support among the poor.

"We will dedicate all our energy, all the experience we have accumulated fighting for the people for so long, and we will put it all to work to deepen these changes," Sanchez Ceren said on Sunday at a rally before thousands of supporters waving red flags.

VENEZUELA'S SHADOW

After fighting a series of U.S.-backed governments during a 12-year civil war that killed about 75,000 people, the FMLN became a political party as part of a 1992 peace deal.

It first won power in 2009 when it ran journalist and current President Mauricio Funes as its candidate instead of more divisive figures with pasts in the rebel army.

While the war is ancient history for a generation of younger voters, already mired in a weak economy rife with gang violence, the Central American country remains polarized between left and right.

Former enemies during the war now wage battle in a divided Congress that has struggled to reach agreement on economic reforms.

In the first round of voting, Sanchez Ceren received 49 percent of the vote, just shy of the margin needed for victory.

Quijano made it into the second-round runoff with 39 percent support and he has since altered his campaign strategy. He had previously focused on a proposal to use the military to fight street gangs, but is now warning that Sanchez Ceren would follow the path of Venezuela's government, which has taken over private businesses.

"We cannot allow the FMLN's deceptions and traps to deny us access to a better future. If not, we can see the sad example of Venezuela," the 67-year-old dentist turned politician told supporters who cheered "Fatherland, yes! Communism, no!"

While Sanchez Ceren plans to join Venezuela's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which furnishes mainly leftist allies with subsidized energy, he says he is forging his own model and has voiced admiration for Brazil and Uruguay's more moderate leftist leaders.

POVERTY, GANGS

Of all of the impoverished countries in Central America, El Salvador is the most dependent on money sent home by migrants working in the United States. Remittances make up nearly one-fifth of the national economy.

Funes' government has widened support for the FMLN with social programs for the poor and it claims it has reduced the poverty rate from 40 percent in 2009 to 29 percent last year.

"I have never seen these kinds of social programs in our history," said carpenter Jesus Romero, 38, at a FMLN rally. "They have changed the lives of a lot of people."

The programs have also helped push up debt levels by nearly a third to $14.5 billion, or about 55 percent of the coffee-producer's gross domestic product.

Further hurting the economy, the crop has been hit hard by roya, or leaf rust, a fungus that kills coffee trees.

Wall Street credit rating agencies have downgraded El Salvador's debt in recent years and, along with the International Monetary Fund, are demanding tax reforms to contain the rising national debt.

Quijano's pledge to deploy the army against street gangs, which control poor areas across the country, failed to draw in many independent voters, unlike in neighboring Honduras, where a conservative candidate recently won the presidency with a similar plan.

A fragile truce between two of El Salvador's violent gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival Barrio 18, was brokered two years ago, but with a recent surge in violence, appears to be in danger of breaking down.

The truce, fostered by religious leaders and former guerrillas, has been credited with cutting one of the world's highest homicide rates by half to a 10-year low last year.

(This story has been refiled to correct spelling of 'guerrilla' throughout)

(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama, writing by Michael O'Boyle, editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and G Crosse)

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