El Salvador populist holds lead weeks ahead of presidential vote

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Nayib Bukele, the former mayor of El Salvador’s capital, has maintained his wide lead in the run-up to the Feb. 3, 2019, presidential election in the crime-ridden Central American country, according to a new poll released on Thursday.

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Bukele, a 37-year-old businessman of the right-wing Great Alliance for National Unity party (GANA) has a 24-point advantage over his nearest rival with 44.1 percent of voter intentions, according to a poll conducted by Central American University (UCA).

His lead in polls marks the first time in three decades that a candidate from an outsider party has a real shot of winning the presidency.

“For the first time, the power held by two sides that were confronted in war and of two political (coalitions) that have taken turns in power since the peace accords is being challenged,” UCA Vice Chancellor Omar Serrano said.

Bukele has gained support for his harsh criticism of traditional politicians and for revamping infrastructure works during his term as mayor of San Salvador.

The incumbent leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has been in power since 2009, after the country’s main right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), ruled for two decades.

Businessman Carlos Calleja of ARENA has 19.7 percent support in the poll. The candidate for the FMLN, former Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez, has 10.6 percent.

To win the presidency in El Salvador a candidate must get over 50 percent of the vote, otherwise a second-round runoff is required.

The former San Salvador mayor was kicked out of FMLN in October 2017, accused of dividing the party as well as throwing an apple at and insulting a female member of the party. Bukele denies the incident ever occurred.

He joined GANA after time had run out to register his own political party.

Rampant gang violence, a sluggish economy and high-profile corruption cases will likely be key voter issues.

UCA pollsters interviewed 1,806 people in the survey, which was conducted between Nov. 16 and Dec. 2.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria, writing by Anthony Esposito, editing by G Crosse