Leftist party wins presidential election in El Salvador

Posted in Latin America | 16-Mar-09 | Author: Blake Schmidt and Elisabeth Ma| Source: International Herald Tribune

Mauricio Funes, center, and his vice-presidential running mate, Sanchez Ceren, celebrating their victory in San Salvador on Sunday.

SAN SALVADOR: The F.M.L.N., the leftist party of the former guerrillas in El Salvador, won the presidential election Sunday after a bruising election campaign, marking a turning point after two decades of rule by the right.

Mauricio Funes, a former television reporter, declared himself the winner before F.M.L.N. campaign workers chanting "yes, we could" at the Sheraton Hotel as supporters on the street waved flags and honked car horns in celebration.

"This is the happiest night of my life," Mr. Funes said. "And I hope it is also the night of greatest hope for El Salvador."

Two hours later, Mr. Funes's conservative opponent, Rodrigo Ávila, conceded defeat. "These are the ups and downs of democracy," said Mr. Ávila , the former national police chief. His party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, had won the presidency four times since 1989.

The victory marked the culmination of nearly two decades of political efforts by the F.M.L.N., the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, to defeat Arena, which was on the opposite side during this nation's 12-year civil war through the 1980s.

In the conflict, tens of thousands died as Marxist F.M.L.N. guerrillas fought the American-backed military, while Arena had argued for a free hand in defeating the guerrillas. To this day, the party anthem vows that the nation will be "the tomb where the Reds meet their end."

The electoral tribunal said that with votes from 92 percent of polling places counted, the F.M.L.N. had won 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent for Arena. Despite fears of fraud, the voting was calm Sunday, with a strong turnout among the 4.3 million registered voters.

"We're entering a new stage in our history now that candidates from the left have reached the presidency and the vice presidency," Mr. Funes told supporters as he declared victory.

He called on the country to unite after the bruising campaign as it faced the global economic crisis. "I'm convinced the only way to confront the crisis is with national unity," he said.

Hundreds of jubilant red-clad leftists hugged one another, cheered and set off fireworks at a monument in the capital. "The people are greater than the oligarchy in El Salvador," said an engineering student, Daniel Romero. "Enough years of false promises and censorship."

Mr. Funes, the first F.M.L.N. presidential candidate who is not a former guerrilla commander, has promised "safe change" and says he will lead in the mold of Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a moderate leftist whose economic policies have won support from foreign investors.

But in the emotional campaign leading up to the vote, Arena argued that electing Mr. Funes as president would be a "surrender" to the socialist camp and associated him with the continent's far-left leaders. On television, it showed Mr. Funes alongside streams of grainy clips featuring images of Hugo Chávez, the autocratic Venezuelan president, in montages that also featured scenes of street chaos and camouflaged soldiers.

The F.M.L.N. had laid down its arms under a 1992 peace deal and vowed to fight for social and economic change through the ballot box. It controlled city hall in San Salvador for 12 years before losing in January and it is now the largest party in the Legislative Assembly.

El Salvador's business elite has been the force, and the money, behind Arena, but social programs have helped it win four presidential elections. During his campaign, Mr. Ávila gave away new houses, inaugurated day care centers and posed for snapshots with applicants at job fairs.

Still, for a business-friendly government, Arena has a middling record. Average annual growth since 1999 has been below 3 percent, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, below the rates in most of the country's neighbors.

Elisabeth Malkin reported from Mexico City. Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.