Leftist Salvadoran ex-rebels claim lead in vote

The ex-rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front claimed "historic" successes Monday in El Salvador's legislative and municipal elections, with its spokesman saying the leftist party will now be the country's "leading political force".


AFP - Former leftist rebels claimed "historic" successes Monday in El Salvador's legislative and municipal elections, saying they will now become "the leading political force".

While the official vote count remained at an early stage, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) spokesman Sigrido Reyes told AFP: "We have achieved historic voting results in both parliamentary and mayoral elections."

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said that with just over 50 percent of the ballots counted from Sunday's election, the front had taken the lead in the parliamentary vote with 489,030 ballots versus 437,561 for the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA).

Reyes said the FMLN had won mayoral races in at least 85 out of 262 cities and towns.

However, the left appeared to have suffered a setback in the capital San Salvador after Norman Quijano, an ARENA candidate, claimed victory in the mayoral election.

Some 4.2 million people were elegible to vote for 84 lawmakers, 20 members of the Central American Parliament and 262 municipal councils, in elections ahead of presidential polls in March in which leftist candidate Mauricio Funes is the favorite.

But only half of them actually took part, election officials said.

The FMLN is the former coalition of Marxist guerrillas that battled the government during a 12-year civil war in which some 75,000 people died.

The war, poverty, and a string of natural disasters -- including Hurricane Mitch in 1998 -- left their mark on one of the most violent countries in the Americas, notorious for "maras" street gangs.

No party has held a parliamentary majority in the past 19 years, but by forming alliances ARENA has dominated decision-making.

The FMLN currently has two fewer seats than ARENA in the single-chamber national assembly.

The former leftist rebels have "great possibilities" of winning the presidential elections, according to the Jesuit Central American University.

"Salvadorans, according to polls, are becoming more critical, have weighed up the current situation of the country, with a sick economy, few jobs and crime," said rector Jose Maria Tojeira.

Some 17,000 police and 2,000 election observers were deployed around the country, to ensure that the balloting remained violence and trouble-free.

Despite a 39 minute delay in the opening of the polls, observer missions from the Organization of American States and the European Union reported only very minor problems.

Salvadorans return to the polls on March 15 to elect a new president and vice president for the next five years.

The results in Sunday's vote and the presidential race will likely have an impact on relations with the United States, which was strongly involved in the 1980-1992 civil war, backing the right-wing government against the rebels.

The economy also depends heavily on the money sent home by hundreds of thousands of US-based Salvadorans.

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