|About 4.4 million people voted across El Salvador in Sunday's legislative and mayoral elections [AFP]
A right-wing opposition party is leading by a slim margin in El Salvador's general election, in which the leftist government of President Mauricio Funes is facing a key test of its popularity and support.
With 50 per cent of precincts reporting on Monday, the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal said the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was ahead with slightly more than 40 per cent of the vote.
It was closely followed by the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with 36.8 per cent.
A conservative coalition named GANA led by ex-president Elias Antonio Saca, a congressional ally of the FMLN, was a distant third with just 9.4 per cent of the ballot. Six smaller parties also fielded candidates.
About 4.5 million Salvadorans voted on Sunday to choose 84 members of the unicameral legislature and mayors of 262 towns and cities.
ARENA, which ruled El Salvador for two decades following the country's civil war, campaigned on a tough anti-crime platform that resonated with many voters tired of rampant crime.
Around 14 people are murdered every day in El Salvador, with a population of six million, according to government figures.
Voting with their feet
While unemployment and underemployment dropped from 40 to 36 per cent during the Funes administration, young people continue to emigrate to the US.
About one in three Salvadorans now lives in the US, providing remittances of more than $3.6bn in 2011, around one-sixth of gross domestic product.
Funes, a political moderate with high approval ratings, has two more years as president in this tiny, densely populated Central American nation. But his popularity does not necessarily transfer into votes for his party, the FMLN.
In an improvised press conference as he voted on Sunday, Funes urged voters to help him "guarantee that the changes that are taking place are strengthened, and not turned back".
The FMLN has campaigned promising social programmes and job creation in a nation with unemployment among one third of the population.
ARENA, meanwhile, has pledged a tougher tack against crime and youth gangs, or Maras, that now control entire neighbourhoods in large cities and smaller communities, which they turn into drug-trafficking havens.