Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front candidate leads in election

On election day in El Salvador, women rest at the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front house in Panchimalco, south of the nation's capital. With 57% of the ballots tallied, the party's presidential candidate, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, was leading. (Jose Cabezas / AFP/Getty Images / February 2, 2014)

MEXICO CITY — A former left-wing guerrilla leader held a wide lead in El Salvador's presidential race Sunday night, but it was unclear whether Salvador Sanchez Ceren could avoid a runoff.

With 57% of the ballots tallied, Sanchez Ceren, the vice president of El Salvador, had a bit more than 49% of the vote. If he draws more than 50%, he will avoid a runoff provisionally scheduled for March 9.

Norman Quijano, a former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, came in second, with 38% of the vote. He represents the conservative Arena party.

The left-versus-right tensions that plunged the tiny Central American country into civil war in 1979 — engulfing it for more than a decade — continue to shape El Salvador's electoral politics. Sanchez Ceren is a member of the former guerrilla group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which has transformed into a political party.

The FMLN won the presidency in 2009 for the first time. Since then, it has bolstered the welfare state — a popular move in a country where more than 1 in 3 residents live below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures from 2012, the most recent available.

Quijano, the Arena candidate, has promised to implement a strict anti-crime agenda, including possible militarization of the police. He has also promised to reject a controversial 2012 truce between El Salvador's powerful street gangs, a defining moment in the presidency of the FMLN's Mauricio Funes. Quijano says the truce amounts to negotiating with criminals.

Former Arena candidate Antonio Saca, another conservative, had 11% of the vote.

richard.fausset@latimes.com