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Why El Salvador's first-round electoral powerhouse is no sure thing in runoff (+video)

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(Read caption) Former guerrilla commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren is vying to keep his left-wing party in power in El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday, but he faces a strong challenge from a right-leaning rival who wants to use the army to battle powerful street gangs. Sanchez Ceren, a rebel commander who became a top leader of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, had a solid lead over his conservative adversary Norman Quijano, who stepped down as the capital's mayor to run. But with three main candidates competing, Sanchez Ceren was projected to fall short of the 50 percent support needed to win outright, and subsequently face Quijano in a run-off on March 9th.

El Salvador's left-wing candidate, current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, overwhelmingly beat his right-wing rival in elections yesterday, but fell a few points shy of the more than 50 percent support needed to avoid a runoff.

Mr. Sánchez Cerén, of the ruling Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN), will face his main opponent again in a March 9 runoff after winning 49 percent of votes Sunday. Norman Quijano, the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party candidate and mayor of San Salvador, came in second with 39 percent of the vote, a much wider gap than polls previously predicted.

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The social programs FMLN has instituted over its five years in power, including giving milk and school supplies to children, appeared to have resonated with voters, even as the country is gripped by gang violence and high levels of insecurity, and a sluggish economy.

“This is a government that is doing something for us,” says Sara Silvia Calles, an FMLN supporter in Soyapango, outside San Salvador. “We have seen how they help the poor.”

Yet Sánchez Cerén, a former guerilla commander, is not assured a victory in the runoff election against Mr. Quijano. A third party candidate, former President Antonio Saca, may have been siphoning off votes from the right in the election yesterday.

Mr. Saca, a former president and ARENA member who ran under his newly founded Unity party, came in a distant third with just over 11 percent support. But his 300,000 voters could be crucial in a runoff, which Sánchez Cerén acknowledged during a speech to supporters late last night.

“I say to Tony Saca and to Unity,” Sánchez Cerén said, “[that] in this second round we are going to work with you ... and we are going to keep widening our alliances.”

Though Saca called Sánchez Cerén to congratulate him on his victory, it is uncertain how many of his followers would vote for the FMLN.

Security matters

A tense, mud-slinging campaign gave way to organized and peaceful elections Sunday. In Soyapango, a crowded working class district east of the capital, one sports complex turned voting center had a downright festive atmosphere. Lines of voters moved briskly as music blared and a scout troop worked the crowd peddling pupusas, traditional Salvadoran stuffed tortillas.

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Police and soldiers, meanwhile, kept a close eye on the site. Soyapango has long been contested territory for the country’s two largest and most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18.

Soyapango is where these gangs took root about 20 years ago and where their presence continues to be felt heavily. Several of those voting Sunday had stories of being threatened by members of one or both groups in recent years.

But – perhaps representative of the broader electorate – voters were divided on which party offered the right solution.

Ana Luisa Mendoza, a mother of two girls who has lived in Soyapango for 35 years, says she has received hand-written notes placed under her door demanding specific sums of money and late-night phone calls.

“The terrible thing is you can't even move,” Ms. Mendoza says. “When you get to the next neighborhood the maras are there and want to know who’s in your family, where you come from."  

Teresa Martinez, a 75-year-old resident, says that one of the gangs “asked me for $800 and demanded it the next day. Thank god they never came to collect it.”

Both Ms. Martinez and Mendoza say they were voting for ARENA’s Mr. Quijano, who spent much of his campaign bashing the FMLN for its role in a controversial gang truce, and has promised to deploy the army against street gangs.

Quijano’s weaker-than-expected showing on Sunday, however, suggests that focusing solely on security issues may not be enough to win him the runoff.

Martinez’s husband, construction worker Misail Mendoza, says that he, for one, is not convinced by ARENA’s stance.

An FMLN supporter, he says a Sánchez Cerén government would respond to the gangs by putting more police on the streets, and that the hardline policies of past ARENA governments are not a solution.

"As a Christian, I believe in forgiveness,” Mr. Mendoza says, “and people deserve a second chance.”

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