El Salvador presidential polls under way

Voters head to polls to decide whether to keep the leftist party in power or return to conservative rule.

Last updated: 02 Feb 2014 23:11
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Voters in El Salvador have headed to the polls to decide whether to keep the leftist party in power or return to conservative rule.

This small but densely populated Central American country of six million is struggling to control rampant gang violence and still burdened by the legacy of its bitter 1979-1992 civil war.

"We just can't stand the violence any longer. Anywhere you go you are afraid, because they just kill people," Zoila
Guevara, a 35-year old housewife told Reuters as she waited in line to vote.

Amid tight security, about 4.9 million voters were called to choose a successor to President Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

While there are five candidates, two are far ahead in pre-election surveys.

The top contender is Salvador Sanchez Ceren of FMLN, a former civil war commander who on Sunday promised an inclusive government if he wins.

"We are committed to ensuring transparency" in the election, the ruling party candidate said as he and his wife went to cast ballots at a polling station in the northeast of the capital, promising to respect the results, AFP reported.

The 69-year-old added he would be "open to the participation of different sectors" and open the doors to all candidates to work together for "a grand national accord".

His main rival, former San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, 67, of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), voted at a school in the west of the city, praising what he called "peaceful elections".

Runoff likely

Antonio Saca, president from 2004 to 2009 who is running a distant third as the head of a coalition of right-wing parties, said he was "optimistic" as he cast his ballot.

The latest polls predict that Sanchez Ceres, a former teacher, will garner between 38 and 47 percent of votes - not enough to guarantee a first round victory.

If no candidate obtains at least 50 percent, the top two will meet again in a runoff scheduled for March 9.

Since the early hours of the morning, supporters of the various candidates have set up stands in their party's colors across the capital helping voters find their polling stations.

The FMLN, which turned into a political party at the end of the civil war, won the presidency in 2009 and Sanchez Ceren has tried to appeal to moderate voters in this campaign as he looks to keep his party in power.

Ceren rejects the idea of deploying the army to fight the gangs and instead vows to forge a political pact to break through a gridlock that has kept a divided Congress from carrying out reforms to tackle crime and weak economic growth.

The FMLN won power at the last election when it put up a popular journalist, Mauricio Funes, as its candidate. Funes, who had no role in the civil war and has led the FMLN towards more moderate leftist policies, has launched popular welfare programs, such as free school uniforms and supplies for students and pensions for the elderly.


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