Salvadoran right in stiff fight to keep presidency
El Salvador's entrenched conservatives face a stiff challenge from the party of former guerrillas in presidential elections Sunday that could bring the left to power for the first time since a devastating civil war, AP reported.
Mauricio Funes has given a fresh and moderate face to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which plucked the bespectacled TV journalist from outside its ranks in an effort to shed its rebel image 17 years after becoming a party under peace accords.
Polls indicate he leads Rodrigo Avila, a former police chief trying to bring the conservative Arena party to its fifth straight presidential victory.
A bitter campaign has left Salvadorans polarized between those who fear an FMLN victory would send the country down a communist path and those eager for change after two decades of conservative rule that has brought economic growth but done little to ease social inequalities or curb rampant gang violence.
Television broadcasts are flooded with campaign ads comparing Funes to Venezuela's fiery President Hugo Chavez, whose rise to power a decade ago began an avalanche of leftist victories in Latin America.
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Avila, 44, warns that a Funes win would turn the country into a Venezuelan satellite and threaten warm ties to the United States. Caravans of Avila supporters rolled through the streets of San Salvador Saturday night, honking and waving banners reading "I won't sell El Salvador."
Funes, 49, accuses Avila of using dirty scare tactics in a country scarred by the 1980-1992 war that left 75,000 people dead. He also claims the government will try to steal the election by bringing in Nicaraguans and Guatemalans to vote, although he has offered no proof of his allegations.
While FMLN leaders have long-standing ties to Chavez, Funes has made a point of reaching out to Latin America's moderate leftist leaders, especially Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He has met with Obama administration officials and says he is hopeful for good relations with the new U.S. president.
On Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon assured Salvadorans that Washington would work with any government elected. It was a marked departure from the Bush administration, which in 2004 suggested that an FMLN victory would harm relations.