Leftist declares victory in El Salvador

Leftist candidate Mauricio Funes has claimed victory in El Salvador\’s presidential election, in a historic vote that ends the 20-year rule of right-wing party ARENA.


“This was the happiest night of my life,” Funes told reporters and supporters late on Sunday. “I\’m the president-elect of the Salvadorans,” Funes said.

“Citizens who believe in hope and who have overcome fear have triumphed today. This is a victory of all the Salvadoran people.”

Right-wing candidate Rodrigo Avila conceded defeat a short time later.

“I want to make it known to Mauricio Funes from the FMLN (ex-guerilla Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) that in this close battle the margin of difference has given him the advantage,” Avila said.

Avila, a former police chief and protege of outgoing president Elias Antonio Saca, had warned on the campaign trail that a leftist victory would turn the country into a satellite of Venezuela and damage its strong ties with the United States.

Brutal civil war

Thousands of the 2.5 million US-based Salvadorans came home to vote in an election watched closely by the United States.

Funes led Sunday\’s polls with 51.2 per cent of the vote after more than 90 per cent of ballots were counted, electoral authorities said.

The still unofficial result is a step forward in El Salvador\’s efforts to recover from a bloody 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, after claiming 75,000 lives.

In that conflict, the FMLN fought the US-backed military dictatorship that ruled the country.

The former rebels later became a political party, also called the FMLN, which fielded Funes as its candidate.

“Today, the citizenship that believed in hope and defeated fear has triumphed,” Funes said.

In the wake of an aggressive campaign, he promised to “cast aside confrontation and the spirit of vengeance.”

\’Spirit of national unity\’

“My government will be based on the spirit of national unity,” Funes said.

With the apparent FMLN victory, El Salvador joins a growing tide of Latin American leftist countries, from Brazil to Bolivia.

The United States will respect the choice Salvadorans make in their election, the State Department\’s top diplomat for Latin America, Tom Shannon said, after several US politicians warned a Funes victory would jeopardize US national security interests in the region.

El Salvador last weekend welcomed its last returning soldiers from Iraq, where it once had 6,000 troops.

Its economy also depends heavily on remittances sent home from mainly US-based Salvadorans, which have dropped in recent months.

Funes identifies himself with moderate leftists, such as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil as opposed to Venezuela\’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez, and is the first FMLN presidential candidate who has never served as an armed combatant.

Funes has tough challenges ahead with the country set to be hard hit by the economic crisis and tough negotiations expected in a congress where no party has a majority, which will complicate policy implementation.