SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A former Marxist guerrilla leader is expected to win El Salvador's presidency on Sunday after promising to expand social programs for the poor and fending off his opponent's claims that he will impose radical policies.
Recent polls showed Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the rebel group in the country's 1980-92 civil war, with about 55 percent support heading into the second round run-off vote on Sunday.
One of the wartime leaders of the FMLN, Sanchez Ceren faces conservative rival Norman Quijano, the former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, who trailed in polls with about 45 percent.
A victory for Sanchez Ceren would give the FMLN a second consecutive term and the affable, media-shy 69-year-old has vowed to build on its social programs, which include a glass of milk a day for children and free school uniforms, shoes and supplies.
Quijano has tried to paint Sanchez Ceren as a communist radical with blood on his hands but in a country where one-third of people live in poverty and many rely on money sent home from relatives living in the United States, the FMLN's social programs are popular.
"No other government has done these things," said Beatriz Herrera, a 43-year-old fruit seller in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second-biggest city, around 40 miles northwest of the capital.
"The FMLN really got to work to help those of us who are poor," she said in the shade of a gnarled tree beside a spring-fed public swimming pool where youths swam and played.
Santa Ana, founded by coffee barons who built a brilliant white cathedral in the city center, had long been a power center of the country's powerful right-wing.
But the FMLN won the mayorship of Santa Ana in the late 1990s as it gained support. It then took the presidency in 2009 when Mauricio Funes, a prominent journalist who had no role in the war, ran as its candidate.
Under the FMLN, the government says the poverty rate has fallen from 40 percent to 29 percent.
In the first round of voting last month, Sanchez Ceren won 49 percent of votes, just shy of the margin needed for victory.
Quijano, the candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party, had 39 percent support and he has since tried to appeal to centrists by quietly dropping a campaign proposal to use the army to fight street gangs.
El Salvador has remained a deeply polarized society since the war, in which the FMLN fought a series of U.S.-backed right-wing governments. The conflict killed about 75,000 people and left many with a deep distrust of the former rebels.
The FMLN has steadily won over supporters by moderating its policies but it has still struggled to push economic reforms through a divided Congress or overcome years of sluggish growth that has fueled the rise of violent street gangs.
Today, the wealthy live in gated communities and shop in lavish malls filled with U.S. chain stores under the watch of armed guards. The poor, meanwhile, struggle in neighborhoods of cinderblock homes controlled by the country's violent gangs.
Tapping into middle-class fears, Quijano has warned that Sanchez Ceren would bow to the influence of Venezuela, where the socialist government has taken over private companies.
"He scares me," said Nelson Galvez, a 48-year-old fisherman in the Pacific fishing town of La Libertad.
"The Venezuelans are ruined, and that is what will happen to El Salvador if these guys win," Galvez said as he sat amid a cluster of a palm-roofed restaurants where people ate raw fish cured in lime juice.
Sanchez Ceren has said he will join Venezuela's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which provides subsidized fuel to allies of Caracas. But he says he is forging his own model and has courted the support of conservatives who have broken with Arena.
In the port of La Libertad, fishermen sell red snapper and lobsters in a market on the boardwalk that was renovated by a FMLN mayor who has tried to make a tourist attraction out of the fishing town. Donaldo Albarengue, a 49-year-old fishmonger, said the FMLN deserved a chance at another five years.
"The gentlemen from Arena had 20 years, and we never saw what they promised," Albarengue said.
Additional reporting by Noe Torres, writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker