|El Salvador still has problems with street crime and one of the world's highest murder rates [AFP]
Of the "pink tide" of left-leaning parties taking power across Latin America, the most dramatic victory yet could happen on Sunday in El Salvador.
Twenty-nine years after it launched an armed insurrection, the Farabundi Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), now a political party, is closer than ever before to winning the presidency.
And its right-wing rival, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), is in danger of losing a 20-year-long grip on power.
"There is an inclination among Salvadorans for change," Sigfrido Reyes, the FMLN party spokesman, told Al Jazeera.
"The right has governed for all of our lives in El Salvador. There has never been a democratic spring in this country. A party of the left has never been in power here and today, for the first time, it is a real possibility."
In 1992, the FMLN signed peace accords with the Arena-led government, marking its transformation from guerrilla group to political party.
Since then, it has won several mayorships as well as large blocs in the National Assembly (after the latest legislative elections in January it has a plurality of seats).
Until recently, Mauricio Funes, the party's presidential candidate, led the polls for several months, at times by as much as 17 points.
But in the final weeks, campaigning has degenerated into a barrage of vicious TV adverts and even physical violence among the two party's supporters. Now many consider Funes and Rodrigo Avila, his Arena rival, to be in a statistical dead heat.
Still, no Arena presidential candidate has ever faced such a tough challenge.
Funes himself is one of the main reasons. The 49-year old came to politics from a career in journalism. He hosted talk shows in El Salvador and worked for several years as a correspondent for CNN Espanol.
Perhaps more significantly, he is not a traditional FMLN party politician. He did not fight in El Salvador's 12-year civil war, and he paints himself more as a centre-left pragmatist than a revolutionary. In fact, his trademark outfit is a white guayabera shirt - not the red clothing favoured by FMLN stalwarts and socialists throughout Latin America.
|About 2.5 million Salvadorans have
migrated to the US [AFP]
Nevertheless his opponents have gone to great lengths to link Funes to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president. One television ad airs a soundbite from Chavez where he includes El Salvador in a list of countries belonging to a pan-Latin "socialist homeland". Some billboards even invoke Cuba's communist leader Fidel Castro, to many on the right a bogeyman who brings back memories of the Cold war.
For Gloria Calderon, an original member of Arena who now does women's outreach for the party in the capital city, fear of a socialist takeover is the primary issue in this election.
"That's what has made Arena more united than ever against this threat that is building again," she says. "We Salvadorans really don't want a totalitarian regime. Democracy has cost us a lot and we have to defend it."
Calderon's choice for president is Rodrigo Avila, whose brother helped found the Arena in the 1980s. Avila, 44, is best known for his two stints as head of the national police force, which was created by the peace accords. He also served in the National Assembly for the Arena.
El Salvador's notorious problem with street crime and organised gangs has flourished essentially under Avila's watch. The country now has one of the highest murder rates in the world. For some, Avila is seen as a hero who battled this ugly phenomenon - for others he is struggling in the polls exactly because of it.
Unlike Funes, Avila went to university, one in the United States, where he paid his way working in restaurants, construction and on the campus police force.
Working odd jobs in the superpower country to the north is something many Salvadorans can empathise with. An estimated 2.5 million Salvadoran immigrants live in the US. The money they send every month to the seven million people living back home buffers the economy - comprising nearly one-fifth of GDP.
Many of those immigrants fled during the 1980s, when war wracked the city and the countryside. It was then too that the US solidified its dominance in Salvadoran affairs. The United States backed the government with weapons, hardware and millions of dollars in financing. Little El Salvador had become a key Cold war battleground in the Americas.
A national hero
The Arena party was also born, founded by an army major named Roberto D'Aubuisson who directed paramilitary death squads. The party won the presidency in 1989 and has not lost it since. Party faithful to this day revere D'Aubuisson as a national hero.
"Whoever wins this election will have a difficult time ahead"
After the war ended, the ruling party deepened its ties with the US through trade and opening up to the free market, privatising most major services and in 2006 becoming the first country in Central America to adopt a regional trade pact with the US.
FMLN supporters say their success in the polls now is partly due to a backlash against that very economical model. While according to World Bank statistics poverty has dropped dramatically in the past 15 years, El Salvador is still a poor country. Rural poverty reaches nearly 50 per cent. If one includes those considered "under-employed," then half of the labour force does not have a job or has to eke out livings in the informal sector.
As the global recession takes hold, bank credit and investment have dried up and remittances sent home from the US are sure to shrink. It all leaves the economy here very vulnerable.
"Whoever wins this election will have a difficult time ahead," says Roberto Rubio, head of the think-tank National Foundation for Development.
"The government will be weak, with the country divided and no majority in the assembly, the state's finances in trouble.
"As the old saying goes, the worst is yet to come."
Source: Al Jazeera