By Nelson Renteria and Michael O'Boyle
SAN SALVADOR, Feb 3 A former Marxist guerrilla
leader who fell just shy of an outright victory in El Salvador's
presidential election said on Monday he would court centrists
ahead of a March run-off vote and ruled out a swing to the
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a top leader of the Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel army during El Salvador's
civil war, won nearly 49 percent of votes in Sunday's first
round, just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
He will now face off on March 9 against Norman Quijano, the
conservative former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, who took
almost 39 percent of the vote and wants to deploy the army to
fight powerful street gangs.
To ensure a victory in the run-off, Sanchez Ceren will need
to lure some of the votes that went to Antonio Saca, a former
president and right-wing candidate who came in a distant third
Sanchez Ceren on Monday pledged to negotiate with Saca,
adding that he would reach out to smaller parties. Quijano,
however, insisted the ex-rebel will swing El Salvador to the
radical left and bow to Venezuela's influence.
The FMLN candidate said before the election that he would
seek to join Venezuela's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which furnishes
mainly leftist allies with cheap energy, but on Monday ruled out
a swing to the South American oil giant's socialist model.
"That is an old wives tale," Sanchez Ceren, 69, said in a TV
interview. "Our model is based on what the people of El Salvador
want. We will not just copy others."
The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of El
Salvador's 12-year civil war in 1992, and it first won power in
2009 after it toned down some of its more radical proposals.
Sanchez Ceren was vice-president in the government and his
campaign was helped by its popular welfare policies, including
pensions and free school supplies.
The regional influence of Venezuela's socialist government
is set to be a major issue in the final race.
"The FMLN's proposal is based on handing over national
sovereignty to Venezuela," Quijano told local television.
Ceren said he would negotiate with Saca, who drew about 11.4
percent of votes in Sunday's vote.
Saca broke away from Quijano's Nationalist Republican
Alliance (Arena) party after he left office, and it is unclear
whether he and his supporters will back Sanchez Ceren in the
The Universidad Centroamericana estimates that while about
60 percent of Saca's supporters would likely opt for Quijano in
the run-off, around 25 percent would go with Sanchez Ceren. That
would be enough to give the leftist a clear win.
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 the most dependent in Central America on
money sent home by migrants working in the United States - those
remittances account for nearly one-fifth of the economy.
Quijano's pledged to deploy the army against street gangs,
which control poor slums across the country. But the campaign
failed to draw in many independent voters, unlike in neighboring
Honduras, where conservatives recently won with a similar plan.
"Going after the gangs would be like returning to the
repression before 1992," said Denise Lopez, a 22-year-old
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.
A rural teacher before the civil war, Sanchez Ceren 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.