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Evangelicals key to El Salvador elections

The group, which has begun to shift to the left, could determine the outcome of Sunday's presidential election.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2009

EL SALVADOR: Members of the Elim church prayed Tuesday.

Kelly Creedon/Special to the christian science monitor

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San Salvador

When Carlos Rivas became an evangelical pastor 10 years ago, he attempted to create a television show uncovering corruption within El Salvador's conservative ruling party. But he was quickly informed that his church prohibited open criticism of the government.

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So he founded the Tabernáculo de Avivamiento Internacional (TAI), a church in the impoverished outskirts of San Salvador. And today, his blogs, editorials, and weekly television programs make an art of denouncing injustice and inequality. He has, in other words, adopted the lexicon of the left.

"Pastors once taught us that poverty was natural," Pastor Rivas says. "But it's because of bad distribution of resources."

Evangelicals in El Salvador, who are mostly Pentecostals, have long been a coveted group among politicians: they make up one-third of the population. But most have been apolitical, and those who did engage politically tended to align with the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party.

Now that is starting to change. In Sunday's presidential election, according to a University of Central America (UCA) poll, 42 percent of Evangelicals say they favor the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist party that grew out of a guerilla movement that battled the military in a 12-year civil war, while 31 percent favor Arena. It is a significant shift from 2004, when 44 percent of Evangelicals voted for Arena and only 28.6 percent for the FMLN.

If Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate, beats Arena candidate Rodrigo Avila, he will be the first leftist president in the nation's history – ending Arena's 20-year grip on El Salvador and making it the newest addition to the leftist fold in Latin America. Evangelicals will be a determining factor in the outcome. "There is a battle to win over the Evangelicals; it is a big, important vote," says Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who teaches theology at UCA in San Salvador. "But it is a more dicey, complicated thing than in the past.... It is not a given they will vote [for the right]."

According to the polling firm CID-Gallup, Mr. Funes leads by more than 5 points, though there are still many undecided voters. And in many ways, Evangelicals' voting tendencies reflect the national mood: more than 80 percent of those surveyed by UCA say the country needs a change. Main concerns cited by voters are unemployment, rampant violence, and gangs.

Evangelicals say their confidence in the FMLN is driven by the same concerns. "We need a change to the left," says Dora Alicia Fernandez, a food stall vendor outside the TAI, where she is a member. "This is changing among Evangelicals ... and it is because of the economic blow. We can't make ends meet."