El Salvadorans wait anxiously amid razor-thin election results

Fewer than 7,000 votes separated El Salvador's ruling party candidate and his rival. Both men claimed victory, fueling worries in a country whose democracy is hard-won.

Esteban Felix
Voters on the outskirts of San Salvador searched for their polling locales in the presidential runoff election in El Salvador. The two candidates were separated by fewer than 7,000 votes.

Ruling party candidate Salvador Sánchez-Cerén led by the thinnest of margins over his right-wing rival in the second round of presidential elections, raising tensions in this tiny Central American country where democratic institutions have gained a hard-won footing.

An election widely predicted to be an easy win for Mr. Sánchez-Cerén’s left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), turned into an anxious night Sunday as fewer than 7,000 votes separated the former guerrilla commander from his conservative rival, Norman Quijano. Election officials have said Sánchez-Cerén’s lead is indisputable but too tight to declare an official winner before results can be verified, which should happen by the end of this week.

Sánchez-Cerén claimed victory and said that he would work with the private sector, suggesting that he would hew close to the centrist policies of his predecessor, President Mauricio Funes, who had no guerrilla ties. In an attempt to reassure voters in this deeply divided country, he said that the election results “have sent us a message that we should look for an agreement with all sectors of El Salvador.”

Mr. Quijano, of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, was also quick to declare victory before supporters, saying that “we are 100 percent convinced that we have won.” He went so far as to call the elections fraudulent and to raise the specter of military intervention, saying that El Salvador’s armed forces were “watching out” for fraud.

This was especially provocative in a nation that endured 12 years of civil war that ended in 1992 with 75,000 civilians dead, many at the hands of the military. The challenge in coming days will be to maintain a majority of Salvadorans’ faith in an electoral system that by many experts' measure is transparent and sound.

The tight race came as a surprise to most election observers, as polls had predicted a comfortable victory for Sánchez-Cerén, who won the first round by 10 percentage points. Mike Allison, a Central America expert at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, pointed out that both parties drew more voters to the polls in the second round, but that ARENA was able to add more than 400,000 voters to its initial rank of supporters.

“The FMLN might have peaked,” Mr. Allison says.

The reasons for the reversal in the FMLN’s fortunes, analysts speculated, could stem from a concentrated voter turnout effort by ARENA after lackluster results in the first round. The FMLN also had to overcome a sluggish economy, attempts by ARENA to link it to unrest in Venezuela, and an unpopular truce that members of the current government tacitly endorsed between two large and dangerous street gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18. In recent months, the truce has unraveled and murders have risen sharply.

“We live like scared chickens,” says Maria Merced, a widow who said she was voting for ARENA at a school just blocks from her home in Mejicanos, a working-class suburb of San Salvador.

“Because of the crime,” she says, “you can’t even leave your house.”

Wooing power of social programs

Still, the FMLN has gained support among many Salvadorans since 2009 by expanding social programs, including gifts of milk, shoes, uniforms, and supplies for schoolchildren. ARENA, which ruled El Salvador for 20 years until losing the presidency in 2009, had eschewed all talk of these social programs in the first round of elections. In campaign materials before the second round, however, the ARENA party had made it clear that it would continue and even expand these programs.

Cindy Belloso, a young single mother in Mejicanos, said that she had received school supplies and shoes for her 3-year-old son. She had also received daily cooking classes, and now hopes to work as a cook.

The FMLN has "helped old people, kids, women," she says. "They are helping all of us."

ARENA found itself sullied by prior misdeeds during the course of the campaign. An ongoing investigation into ex-president Francisco Flores, an ARENA party leader accused of pocketing millions of dollars donated to the country by Taiwan, has become national fodder for jokes—culminating with Flores going on the lam during the electoral campaign.

Balmore Chavez said that the Flores investigation had influenced his vote for the FMLN.

"This has happened with all the past presidents of ARENA," he says.

If the current results stick, a second presidential loss in five years for ARENA could weaken the party internally, says Geoff Thale, program director for the Washington Office on Latin America.

“I think the knives will be out,” he says.  

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