MEXICO CITY – Salvadoran electoral authorities on Thursday declared leftist Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren the winner of a bitterly contested presidential election, but the political right refused to accept the loss.
Tension continued to run high in the small Central American country four days after a runoff vote favored Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla commander, by the tiniest of margins, according to a final count by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The tribunal said Sanchez Ceren, of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), received 50.11% of the vote, compared with 49.89% for Norman Quijano of the right-wing Arena party, a former mayor of San Salvador, the nation's capital. About 3 million ballots were cast, with the difference between the two candidates just shy of 6,400 votes.
The Arena party has accused the FMLN of widespread fraud and Thursday blasted Sanchez's victory as "illegitimate," branding the electoral commission partial. Quijano called for a full recount "vote by vote."
"I am confident we won this election," Quijano said. Earlier in the week, he raised the specter of violence -- a throwback to the civil war that racked the country from 1980 to 1992 -- by suggesting the army would intervene.
But military commanders said at a news conference Wednesday that they were staying out of the dispute and would accept the tribunal's final say.
"In these elections, hope and joy overcame fear," Sanchez Ceren said. He invited the opposition into a "dialogue" and promised to work to build an "inclusive" country.
"Twenty-two years after peace accords [that ended the war], democracy has come to El Salvador to stay," he said on his Twitter account.
At 69, the now-gray Sanchez Ceren will be the first guerrilla fighter to govern El Salvador. The FMLN won the 2009 presidential election, ending nearly two decades of conservative rule by Arena, but the candidate that year was Mauricio Funes, a former television reporter sympathetic to the left but who had not fought as a rebel.
Funes' term ends June 1 with Sanchez Ceren's inauguration, barring any surprises. The parties have several days to present complaints and challenges.
The blade-thin vote margin and the festering dispute over the balloting bode ill for governing the still-violent country, dogged by gang warfare, a growing presence of drug traffickers and deep poverty.
As the vote shows, the country remains polarized, represented by political parties with starkly opposite philosophies long after a war that killed 75,000 Salvadorans and drove tens of thousands of refugees to Southern California and other parts of the U.S.
"Society is divided," Abraham Abrego, an analyst with the Studies Foundation for the Application of Law, said by telephone from San Salvador. "There is no consensus over the models that the parties propose. There needs to be understanding and negotiation, with everyone putting in their part, and what we are seeing is the opposite of that."
The FMLN and Arena were bitter enemies during the war, in which the U.S. government, in what it said was an effort to stop the spread of communism, backed Salvadoran governments and armies against the rebels, who received support from Cuba and the Soviet bloc. The two sides fought to a virtual stalemate. The FMLN became a political party after United Nations-brokered accords ended the war.
Sanchez Ceren, who commanded the most powerful faction of the rebel group, won the first electoral round on Feb. 2 with 49% of the vote, in a three-way race. Because no one received more than 50%, a runoff was held between him and second-place finisher Quijano.
Before Sunday's vote, polls had suggested Sanchez Ceren would coast to victory by a substantial margin. Analysts said one reason for the tighter race may have been Quijano's effort to portray Sanchez Ceren as a Hugo Chavez-style ruler who would take El Salvador down the same road as Venezuela.