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Former guerrillero tipped for presidency in El Salvador


An ex-guerrilla fighter turned presidential hopeful is the frontrunner in El Salvador’s elections on Sunday. While a left-leaning government is in power, picking a onetime insurgent as the country’s head of state would be an unprecedented event.


Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the 69-year-old presidential candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), is on track to win 46.8% of votes, while right-wing rival Norman Quijano is polling 32.8% support, according to the latest opinion survey by the Central American Jesuit University.

“Sanchez Ceren’s advantage has grown in recent weeks. It is a result of the FMLN’s increasingly positive image among voters, but also the widespread idea that Quijano’s ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party should not return to power,” Jeannette Aguilar, the director of the university’s public opinion institute told FRANCE 24.

The small Central American country’s charismatic president Mauricio Funes, a former television journalist, is barred by the constitution from running for a consecutive term. The FMLN convinced him to run as their nominee in 2009, but Funes has never joined the party and largely maintained his independence from the political camp.

Five years later, the guerrilla-army-turned-political-party hopes to send one of its old fighters to the Casa Presidencial for the first time.

Sanchez Ceren has promised to continue and even extend Funes’ popular welfare programmes, like free school supplies for the country’s neediest children and support for poor farmers. He also wants El Salvador to join the Petrocaribe oil bloc led by Venezuela’s socialist government.

Quijano, 67, a trained dentist and the current mayor of the capital San Salvador, has based his campaign largely on the issue of security. Many voters think Funes and the FMLN have not done enough to curb crime, and Quijano has said he would even use the army to fight feared street gangs.

Top commander

The FMLN fought a devastating war against El Salvador’s military-led government between 1979 and 1992. In the post-war period, it fielded several former guerrilla leaders in presidential elections, but they consistently lost at the ballot. While it eventually found a winner in Funes, a victory for the former commander Sanchez Ceren would be a historic moment for the party.

Sanchez Ceren was born into a humble family near San Salvador and became a rural school teacher. He participated in protests against the government in the late 1960s before joining the Marxist-inspired guerrilla army in 1970.

Commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren at the height of the Salvadoran civil war.
Commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren at the height of the Salvadoran civil war.

He would go on to become one of the five commanders in the FMLN’s central committee, leading the northern front near the border with Honduras. His high-ranking position also made him a key player during peace negotiations and accords in the early 90s.

He has kept a low profile as the country’s vice president and education minister during the past five years, but observers say he has been a quiet force within the government and is widely credited for carrying through some of Funes’ flagship reforms.

Hector Nuñez, a Chilean social anthropologist and an international observer in Sunday’s elections, says the choice of pairing Sanchez Ceren with Oscar Ortiz, the dynamic mayor of the city of Santa Tecla, has also played in the FMLN’s favour, appeasing the party’s old guard while energizing younger constituents.

Former president possible kingmaker

Opinion polls suggest that despite Sanchez Ceren’s momentum he will not claim the 50% support needed to avoid a run-off against Quijano on March 9.

A second round poll could make Antonio Saca, a former president who is seeking re-election but running a distant third in the race, the kingmaker in the contest.

Quijano may still have a shot at the presidency, since Saca’s supporters tend to be conservative. But Jeannette Aguilar says it is unlikely they will flock to ARENA en masse.

“The polls show that an even split among those who vote for Saca in the first round would allow Sanchez Ceren to win with a margin of around six percentage points,” she said.

If Sanchez Ceren wins his last battle, it would make him the first guerrilla president of El Salvador, but not of the region. He would join Uruguay’s José Mujica and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, both former left-wing insurgents who rose to claim their countries’ highest office.

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