February 3, 2014 5:14 am

El Salvador presidential election poised for run-off vote

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A former guerrilla leader from El Salvador’s ruling party has opened up a commanding lead over a rightwing rival in the country’s presidential election, but is still likely to face a run-off vote.

With about three-quarters of the votes counted, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, vice-president, was ahead with 48.95 per cent – a wide lead over former San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, who favours using the army to combat violent crime, with 38.97 per cent.

However, Mr Sánchez Cerén remained shy of the 50 per cent plus one vote needed to clinch victory. Unless he clears that threshold, the stage will be set for a March 9 run-off in which the supporters of third-placed candidate, former president Antonio Saca, who has so far polled 11.40 per cent, could be pivotal.

Though Mr Sánchez Cerén is a member of the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – the party that signed peace accords in 1992 ending one of Latin America’s bloodiest conflicts with US-backed rightwing governments – he is considered less moderate than Mauricio Funes, the president.

He earned notoriety by leading a march shortly after the September 11 2001 attacks in which US flags were burnt, and champions the Venezuelan-led ALBA trade bloc – a potential strain on US relations.

Nonetheless, he has earmarked a centrist for his vice-presidential candidate and promised to tackle crime through social programmes and education, as well as effective policing, rather than what he calls the failed hardline policies propounded by Mr Quijano.

A two-year truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival, Barrio 18, had curbed violence, but murder rates have been rising again and El Salvador’s security minister said that the gangs are again at war. Aside from security, crime and unemployment – the top voter concerns – the next president, who takes office on June 1, faces slow economic growth and a divided Congress.

Costa Rica, which also held presidential elections on Sunday, looked poised for a second-round showdown, on April 6, after leftist Luis Guillermo Solís had a slight edge over centrist ruling party candidate Johnny Araya with 69 per cent of the vote counted.

Mr Solís, a newcomer, was a whisker ahead on 30.59 per cent while Mr Araya, a former mayor of the capital San José, had 28.83 per cent. Mr Araya has sought to distance himself from Laura Chinchilla, the president, whose administration has been plagued by scandal and corruption, but himself faces charges of abuse of authority and embezzlement.

Mr Solís says he wants to “restore confidence in politics” and has pledged to overhaul infrastructure and healthcare. Whoever wins, however, faces a mounting government debt burden, plus corruption and poverty to tackle.

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