El Salvador heads to the polls

March 15, 2009 12:00 am

, SAN SALVADOR, Mar 15 – Salvadorans vote on Sunday in a closely-fought election that could see former leftist rebels put an end to 20 years of right-wing leadership in the crime-plagued Central American country.

The result will likely impact relations with the United States, which has been a close ally since backing a repressive military government during a 1980-1992 civil war in which more than 70,000 died.

Many Salvadorans seek change in one of the world’s murder hotspots where the economic crisis is predicted to hit hard, but others are nervous of former Marxist rebels taking charge of the economy at this time.

Mauricio Funes, a 49-year-old former TV journalist, is favorite to win the vote six weeks after his radical Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) claimed victory in the country’s parliamentary elections.

Funes says El Salvador will remain a staunch US ally if he wins. But the opposition, including governing conservative party candidate 44-year-old Rodrigo Avila, claims the country would become a satellite of Venezuela and other populist leftist forces in the region.

The United States will respect the choice Salvadoran people make in their election, the State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America, Tom Shannon, said Friday, after several US lawmakers warned that a Funes victory would jeopardize US national security interests in the region.

"We are committed to free and fair elections in El Salvador. And we’ve also made it very clear that we will work with whomever the Salvadoran people elect," Shannon said.

El Salvador last weekend welcomed its last returning soldiers from Iraq, where it once had 6,000 troops, and its economy depends heavily on the money sent home by some 2.5 million US-based Salvadorans.

Both Funes and Avila campaigned in the United States ahead of the election.

A Funes victory would put another Latin American country on the political left, joining others from Brazil to Bolivia.

The FMLN is the former coalition of Marxist guerrillas that battled the government during the civil war, and Funes is its first presidential candidate never to have been an armed combatant.

Victory would also overturn 20 years of domination by the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) of President Elias Antonio Saca Gonzalez.

But whatever the final outcome in the presidential poll, no party will have an outright majority in Congress, which will complicate policy implementation.

Funes had a strong lead in early polls, but the gap between him and Avila has narrowed in recent weeks, when tens of thousands of Salvadorans attended election rallies.

The war, poverty, and a string of natural disasters — including Hurricane Mitch in 1998 — have left their mark on one of the most violent countries in the Americas, notorious for "mara" street gangs.

The European Parliament has urged authorities to give "reliable" results on Sunday night. Meanwhile, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal still needs to iron out problems in the 17-year-old vote-counting system.

Some 4,000 local and international monitors are to observe the poll to elect a president and vice-president for five-year terms. There are 4.3 million eligible voters.

Polling stations are due to open at 7:00 am (1300 GMT) and close at 5:00 pm (2300 GMT). The Supreme Electoral Tribunal hopes to announce first results at 8:00 pm (0200 GMT Monday).


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