El Salvador election too close to call

As both presidential candidates claim victory, election official urges 'prudence' until final count on Monday

An electoral worker counts ballots at a polling station after the presidential election run-off in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2014.
Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

El Salvador's too-close-to-call presidential runoff election has raised competing claims of victory from a former fighter for leftist guerrillas and the candidate of what was once the long-ruling conservative party that fought a civil war from 1980 to 1992.

Norman Quijano, the candidate of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, said his party was on "a war footing" and vowed "to fight with our lives, if necessary" to defend what he claimed was his victory.

But Monday's counts of nearly all polling stations' votes showed him a few thousands votes behind Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the leftist candidate of the now governing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. The margin of just under 7,000 votes was just over 0.2 percent of the approximately 3 million ballots cast. 

Like Quijano, Sanchez Ceren also claimed victory. 

"The men and women of El Salvador are the ones who decide, and if you don't accept the result, you are violating the will of the people," Sanchez Ceren said. "I say to my adversary, to his party, that my administration will welcome them with open arms, so that together we can build a new country."

The slim margin was a surprising result, considering that opinion polls in the weeks leading up to the election had put Quijano 10 to 18 percentage points behind Sanchez Ceren. Just 6,634 votes separated the two candidates, raising the prospect of legal challenges and a weak mandate for the eventual winner.

The president of El Salvador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Eugenio Chicas, said the race was "extremely tight" and that neither candidate could claim victory. He said Sanchez Ceren's lead was undisputable but did not formally declare him the winner, saying the tribunal needed to review challenges to some ballots and was waiting for a definitive vote count, which began Monday.

"This tribunal orders neither party to declare itself the winner, in light of results that are so close that only the final count can decide," Chicas said, adding that "the margin is so close that we ask for prudence."

Quijano alleged fraud, and called on the army to play a role, a statement that carries ominous echoes in a country where 76,000 people died in the civil war, which pitted the army against the leftist rebels.

"We are not going to allow Venezuelan-style fraud, in the style of Chavez and Maduro," Quijano said, referring to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro. "We have our own recount, which shows we won."

Quijano criticized the electoral tribunal, saying it "sold out to the dictatorship," adding that "the armed forces are ready to make democracy."

The country's military leaders made no comment on the elections.

Sanchez Ceren, 69, 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.

Quijano, 67, ran for the once long-ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA, which lost the presidency to Funes in 2009.

Sanchez Ceren 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 Jose Mujica, also a former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.

Quijano 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.

Sanchez Ceren 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.

Wire services

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