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.