International

Former rebel leader declared winner in El Salvador elections

Right-wing party, citing fraud, calls to nullify the vote; threatens to take matter to Supreme Court

Vice presidential candidate Oscar Ortíz, left, and presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén during the runoff election in San Salvador on Sunday.
JOSE CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

El Salvador's electoral court on Thursday declared leftist-party candidate and former rebel commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén the winner of the country’s hotly contested presidential election.

With 100 percent of the votes counted, the electoral court announced that Sánchez Cerén, the candidate of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, garnered 50.1 percent of the votes in Sunday's runoff. Norman Quijano, of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as ARENA, received 49.9 percent.

But the electoral commission cannot yet declare Sánchez Cerén the president-elect, according to local media, because ARENA filed a petition to nullify the vote on the basis of fraud. The right-wing party threatened on Wednesday to take the matter to the Supreme Court if necessary.

With about 3 million ballots cast, Sánchez Cerén won by roughly 6,300 votes.

He is the first former rebel commander to win the presidency in the 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.

The once long-ruling ARENA lost the presidency to Funes in 2009 after two decades in power.

Sánchez Cerén, 69, and his supporters celebrated their victory at a hotel in downtown San Salvador. But shortly after the announcement, he urged them to stay calm.

"This is a very exciting moment, but also a moment of commitment for the FMLN," said Lorena Peña, an FMLN congresswoman. "We will be fully committed with the people."

Quijano, 67, said he will dispute the results because he alleged there was fraud in the vote, including multiple voting by FMLN backers. ARENA party leaders have said they will continue taking to the streets to demand a recount.

Quijano has been organizing protests and called on the army to defend against the alleged fraud, but the defense minister, Gen. David Munguía Payés, and the army's top commanders said at a news conference Wednesday that they are staying out of the dispute.

"We are committed to respecting the official results that are issued by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal," Munguía Payés said. "We repeat that we are committed to strictly respecting the sovereign decision that the people of El Salvador expressed at the ballot box."

Quijano's suggestion of military intervention had called up echoes of the country's 1980–92 war, when 76,000 people died in fighting between the military and leftists rebels of the FMLN. After peace accords ended the conflict in 1992, the FMLN turned into a political party.

Sánchez Cerén campaigned 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 José Mujica, also a former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.

Sánchez Cerén was a top rebel commander who helped negotiate the peace accords that ended El Salvador's civil war, in which the United States supported the government against the FMLN to prevent communism from spreading in Latin America.

Quijano said Wednesday that electoral authorities didn't allow several of his campaign advertisements to run and charged that members of the FMLN were allowed to vote twice, but presented no evidence to back up his claims.

ARENA President Jorge Velado also declined to provide evidence of the alleged fraud. “In due time,” he told the daily newspaper El Faro, “we’re going to present the evidence. I cannot provide details now.”

His supporters have demanded a vote-by-vote recount. Authorities recounted votes at only about 21 polling places, which wouldn't be enough to alter the final results.

El Salvador has 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 in the first two months of the year, an increase of more than 25 percent 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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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