Look ahead to El Salvador vote

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Back in the 1980's, we heard a lot about El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The FMLN was a leftist rebel group fighting to overthrow the Salvadoran government, a government that President Ronald Reagan actively supported. Well, two decades later, the FMLN may finally get to run El Salvador. And it's happening not with bullets, but with ballots. Roger Atwood is a journalist based in El Salvador. Roger, tomorrow Salvadorans go to the polls to elect a new president and the FMLN candidate is expected to win. How did that happen?

ROGER ATWOOD: I think the reasons for that have more to do with the state of politics and society in El Salvador today. The party that's been ruling for 20 years, the ARENA party, has not a lot to show for it. The ARENA has cast itself as a pro-business party. It's quite conservative. It's in some ways a Cold War mold. But for a pro-business party, it hasn't really brought very much economic growth. The economic growth figures in El Salvador are really quite low by Latin American standards. Also, one of the big issues is crime. El Salvador has a very high homicide rate. It's about 55 per 100,000, which is just about ten times that of the United States. It has this problem with gangs and organized crime but just a general problem of violence in society. ARENA hasn't really come up with many answers to that problem, and it's contributing a lot to the emigration of people from society, which is another problem that hasn't really been dealt with very well in the last few years is the issue of Salvadorans emigrating in very large numbers abroad � mostly to the United States � and the problems of family disintegration that that leads to.

WERMAN: Now, the FMLN presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, is quite popular. Is that due to the FMLN's ability to sell itself as a credible alternative to ARENA or is it about Funes himself? Who is he?

ATWOOD: Well, Funes was a television talk-show host, and he's very poised. He's a very polished speaker. He's a very good speaker. He really radiates self-confidence, but he is in this kind of delicate situation, I think. He was never a guerrilla fighter. He's the only person in the leadership � well, one of the very few people in the leadership of FMLN who was never a guerrilla fighter. He has never held public office, and his only contact with the war was as a journalist covering it. Now, here he is leading this party of former guerrilla fighters who have tried to fight their way to power. And it is kind of a delicate -- and the way he recounts it, he actually approached the party to be their leader, and they readily accepted. They had been participating in the election since the 1992 peace agreement. They had won a large bloc of seats in Congress, but they had never cracked the presidency. They had never won the presidency, and that's what Mauricio Funes offered to do for them, and they accepted. I think he has tried to overlay a more moderate image. Most of the FMLN leaders are really quite ideological and quite hardlined in a lot of ways.

WERMAN: I was gonna say. I mean, a well turned out personality, a television talk show host. He doesn't sound like a leftist rebel?

ATWOOD: You know, he comes from a very progressive tradition. His brother was kidnapped and killed during the war for apparently political reasons. He talks a lot about the problems of poverty and the lack of education in El Salvador. He's no showman. He's very serious in the sense that he really does have real ideas for improving primary education, improving health care. He talks a lot about El Salvador's really persistent rates of infant mortality and illiteracy and is trying to take the FMLN into a more social democratic kind of discourse and away from a more hardline, ideological tone that it's had in the past.

WERMAN: From everything we're reading here, it sounds like, you know, the FMLN victory tomorrow is a done deal. Does ARENA stand any chance at all in this election?

ATWOOD: Yeah, I think they do. They have a very good �get out the vote� operation. They have a very, very loyal base in rural El Salvador. They have a very strong following, so I think they definitely could win it. I think it's going to be very, very close. I mean, ARENA is a very formidable political opponent. In January, the ARENA confounded the polls and won the mayoralty of El Salvador, ended the FMLNs 12-year-long record as mayors of El Salvador. And they did that by really emphasizing the nuts and bolts issues � talking about things like trash collection and transport, things that people thought the FNLM mayor really hadn't been moving on quickly enough.

WERMAN: Journalist Roger Atwood, based in El Salvador. Good to speak with you. Thanks indeed.

ATWOOD: Okay. Well, thank you.