SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — A former Marxist guerrilla and the conservative former mayor of El Salvador's capital were in a tight race Sunday night in early returns from their presidential runoff election.
With ballots counted from more than half the country's polling places, each candidate had about half the votes, electoral officials reported.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, 69, the leftist candidate of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, had been seen as the favorite to become the first true guerrilla to lead this Central American nation. Outgoing President Mauricio Funes was a journalist who was sympathetic to the FMLN rebels during the civil war but was never a guerrilla.
His opponent was former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, 67, the candidate of the once long-ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA, which lost the presidency to Funes in 2009.
Sanchez Ceren campaign on a promise to deepen the outgoing government's popular social programs and govern as a moderate. He said he envisioned ruling like Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, also a former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.
Quijano had accused the former guerrilla of appearing to want to lead the country like Venezuela's late socialist president, Hugo Chavez, and he warned of a return of communism. He also promised to crack down on rising gang violence.
Opinion polls had put Quijano 10 to 18 percentage points behind Sanchez Ceren, who was a top rebel commander who helped negotiate the 1992 Peace Accords that ended El Salvador's 12-year civil war. During the war that killed 76,000 people, the United States supported the Salvadoran government against the FMLN to prevent communism from spreading in Latin America.
El Salvador is dealing with one of the highest murder rates in the world. A 2012 gang truce seemed to cut the country's daily average of 14 dead by half, but the drop appears to have been short-lived.
Homicides, mostly of gang members, have risen again this year; police statistics show 501 murders the first two months of this year— a more than 25 percent increase over the same period of 2013. More unsettling is the fact that many dead have turned up in mass graves, leading some to believe the gang truce could have been either an illusion or an agreement to cover up the violence.
During the campaign, Quijano lambasted Funes for negotiating with criminals because of the truce he struck between the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gangs. He promised to get tough on criminals, possibly militarizing public security.
The ruling party, in turn, focused on alleged ARENA corruption, accusing Quijano's former campaign manager of mismanaging millions in aid he received from Taiwan.