MEXICO CITY — Salvadorans vote Sunday in a presidential election that may give former leftist rebels a second chance at government — or return national leadership to the right-wing party that ruled the country for two decades.
Opinion surveys have shown an extremely tight race, especially with the entrance of a new third party run by a former conservative president with family members tied to notorious corruption cases.
More than 20 years after the end of a civil war in which more than 75,000 people were killed, choices remain stark in El Salvador, the tiny Central American country that, after Mexico, is the leading source of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Southern California.
When the left won the presidency in 2009 for the first time in modern Salvadoran history, there were high expectations about change and progressive policies after a generation of conservative rule.
But many Salvadorans now express disappointment in a country where international drug-trafficking has made great inroads, gangs control entire neighborhoods, and economic growth has plummeted.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, vice president and candidate for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, the guerrilla group that became a political party after the war, appears to have a slight lead going into Sunday's vote. Close behind is Norman Quijano, a popular former mayor of San Salvador, the capital, who represents the once-dominant Arena party.
Both are polling at about 30%, according to most surveys. A candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Another candidate, Antonio Saca, heads a coalition called Unidad. He was accused of suspicious enrichment during his 2004-09 presidency under the Arena banner. Even though he is polling at less than 10%, it is thought he is siphoning votes from his erstwhile right-wing colleagues.
Sanchez Ceren, the FMLN candidate, was one of the guerrilla movement's founding commanders, and thus is seen as more hard-line than President Mauricio Funes, who led the FMLN to victory in 2009. Funes, a former journalist, never joined the guerrillas.
Funes remains popular, having sponsored social programs, including affordable education. But after taking a stab at police reform, he turned to the military for security, which eroded some of his support.
A controversial gang truce under the Funes government succeeded in reducing the number of homicides but did little to curb other major crimes, such as extortion. Some Salvadorans have criticized the truce as an undesirable negotiation with criminals.
To what extent Sunday's vote will serve as a plebiscite on the Funes and FMLN performance remains to be seen. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Quijano said he would not continue the truce. He pledged an iron-fisted response to crime, possibly including the militarization of the police, similar to the vow from the new conservative president-elect of neighboring Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez.
The candidates have not offered many specifics on the economy, in a country surviving in large part on $4 billion a year in remittances sent from Salvadorans in the United States. A Sanchez Ceren government would probably emphasize "continuity," and Quijano might give priority to the agricultural sector. Both say jobs are key.
"The government that takes office June 1 will receive a perverse inheritance because the country … is immersed in an inevitable crisis — economic, political, social, and in security — like never before," columnist Claudio M. de Rosa wrote this week in the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Grafica.
A runoff, if necessary, will be held in March and the victor inaugurated June 1.
The U.S. government, which backed El Salvador's right-wing governments against the guerrillas during the 1980-1992 war, has insisted that it remains neutral in the election and will work with whoever wins.
Washington has showered El Salvador with aid and enlisted it in the regional battle against drug traffickers, as the tiny country increasingly has become a transshipment point for cocaine and other drugs headed to the United States.