Ex-guerrilla leader ahead in El Salvador run-off vote

SAN SALVADOR (AFP) - A former guerrilla commander is favoured to win El Salvador's presidential run-off vote on Sunday and be tasked with cutting rampant crime and poverty in the Central American country.

Pre-election polls show Mr Salvador Sanchez Ceren from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) - which fought United States-backed governments in a bitter 1979 to 1992 civil war - comfortably ahead of San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena).

The conservatives were in power for two decades until 2009, when Salvadorans elected their first leftist government and former journalist Mauricio Funes from the FMLN became president.

Mr Sanchez Ceren, 69, is a teacher by profession and the country's current vice president. He is also a former education minister, and was one of five top guerrilla commanders during the civil war.

The FMLN fell just shy of an outright victory in the first round on Feb 2, but polls now give Mr Sanchez Ceren an advantage of between 10 and 18 points.

Since the first round, Mr Quijano, 67, sought a badly needed boost in public opinion by softening his language against the street gangs, known in Central America as "maras."

Mr Quijano is also seeking to capitalise on unrest in Venezuela, where there have been mass protests against leftist President Nicolas Maduro and his handling of the economy.

"Here, we are still in time to shine with our own light," one campaign ad says. "El Salvador will not be another Venezuela," it adds, with footage of street protests in Venezuela.

But Mr Quijano suffers from links to his former campaign adviser, ex-president Francisco Flores, who is being probed over the whereabouts of US$10 million (S$12.7 million) donated by Taiwan during his 1999 to 2004 government.

Arena removed Mr Flores from his job two weeks ago but the controversy has damaged Quijano's campaign.

After the civil war El Salvador found itself facing violence from the street gangs, which control whole neighbourhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.

Homicides were running at 14 per day until a truce was reached between the two main gangs in March 2012, which helped to halve the murder rate. But extortion and other crimes persist.

The maras are believed to number about 60,000, 10,000 of whom are behind bars.

Mr Sanchez Ceren wants to rehabilitate ex-gang members, but said he would fight those who refuse to give up street life.

Mr Quijano now talks about keeping children out of the gangs and rehabilitating those who have already joined them.

Whoever wins and takes office on June 1 will face a shaky economy. Forty per cent of El Salvador's six million people live in poverty, and the country relies heavily on remittances sent by Salvadorans living abroad, mostly in the United States.

That money totals around US$4 billion (S$5.1 billion) a year and accounts for 16 per cent of the country's GDP.

Mr Sanchez Ceren wants to spend more on social programs and finance them with a "progressive fiscal policy." "The main thing is to use those funds honestly," he has said, without elaborating.

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