Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

EL SALVADOR: Elections Mark Shift to the Left

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 16 2009 (IPS) - Salvadoran president-elect Mauricio Funes of the leftist insurgency-turned-political party FMLN promised to build an “inclusive” government, with a view to bringing about reconciliation in Salvadoran society and creating a “future of progress” for all Salvadorans.

With over 90 percent of the votes counted, Funes took 51.7 percent of the total against 48.7 percent for his rival, Rodrigo Ávila, the candidate of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Front (ARENA), which has governed the country since 1989.

“This is the happiest night of my life, and I also want it to be the night of greatest hope for El Salvador,” Funes said late Sunday when he declared his victory, alongside vice president-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén, other FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) leaders, and the future first lady, Brazilian-born Vanda Pignato.

Funes, a 49-year-old TV journalist and former correspondent for the U.S. CNN cable news network, said “a spirit of national unity” would reign in his government, which would leave aside confrontation and revanchism.

“It is time to move towards the future; the fatherland belongs to all Salvadorans,” he said.

President Antonio Saca and Ávila both called Funes to congratulate him.

Funes will head the first leftwing government in the history of El Salvador, which has been governed by military dictatorships and conservative and rightwing forces since it became an independent nation in the mid-19th century.

Sunday’s turnout stood at 61 percent, with just over 2.4 million of the country’s 4.2 million voters casting ballots.

Although a 1992 peace agreement put an end to a 12-year armed conflict between the FMLN and government forces that left 80,000 people dead or “disappeared” and 40,000 disabled, this impoverished Central American country of 5.7 million still has one of the world’s highest homicide rates: 61 per 100,000 population.

And while the 2006 official unemployment rate (the latest available figure) was 6.6 percent, 43 out of 100 economically active people are under-employed or scrape by with temporary jobs, casual labour or working in the informal sector of the economy, mainly as street vendors.

Analyst Ernesto Rivas Gallont said Funes won because his message reached Salvadorans, overcoming the intense “fear campaign” waged against him.

“The people were fed up after 20 years of government by ARENA; voters have matured,” Rivas Gallont commented to IPS.

The biggest challenge Funes now faces, he said, is to create “a more just country,” fighting poverty and restoring “the rule of law.”

More than 40 percent of Salvadorans are poor, according to official statistics.

After it became a legal political party in 1993, the FMLN lost three presidential elections, in 1994, 1999 and 2004.

“I’m overjoyed, at last we are free; we are going to have a more just society,” FMLN supporter María Artiga told IPS during the celebration that stretched into the wee hours of Monday morning.

Artiga formed part of a huge tide of people in red – the colour of the FMLN – along the Paseo General Escalón and Alameda Roosevelt, two of the capital’s main thoroughfares.

People “spoke out for change,” FMLN legislator Jorge Jiménez told IPS.

“I’m happy, after so many years of struggle,” said a visibly moved Jiménez, who as a guerrilla fought on Guazapa mountain, one of the insurgent group’s strongholds in northern El Salvador.

Responding to Funes’s victory, former president Armando Calderón (1994-1999), of ARENA, said “democracy and El Salvador have won.”

The president-elect’s spokesman, David Rivas, told IPS that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva phoned Funes to congratulate him and to reiterate the offer of support that he made during the four meetings they have held, in El Salvador and Brazil.

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