SAN SALVADOR — A charismatic television journalist who is a member of the country’s left-wing party is the odds-on favorite to become the next president of El Salvador.

In the final days of campaigning before Sunday’s election, Mauricio Funes had a lead in the polls. If he wins, it will mark a first for the left-wing Faribundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) — allowing the party to do at the ballot box what it couldn’t on the battlefield during the country’s civil war, which ended in 1992.

More than 4 million Salvadorans are expected to vote Sunday. Funes is running against National Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Rodrigo Avila, and polls show him up 9 percent.

Campaigning on a slogan of “change,” Funes has been buoyed by huge audiences at his rallies, and by local elections held in mid-January.

The resemblance of the Funes campaign to that of Barack Obama — including the heavy use of the internet — hasn’t escaped the notice of Salvadoran voters. FMLN ads even use the slogan, "Yes, we can."

Despite Funes’ poll numbers, the outcome is far from certain.

Polls here aren’t considered reliable, even when conducted just days before an election. Historians allege there has never been a fair election in El Salvador’s history.

The FMLN claim that ARENA has stolen past elections with "aggressive fraud," including registering dead voters and using false identifications to allow Mexicans and Guatemalans to vote.

But this presidential election will be the most closely watched in the country’s history — the FMLN has arranged for about 5,000 international and local observers. Most of the observers are from the U.S. and Canada.

As the party has in the past, ARENA is running ads claiming that an FMLN victory would mean retaliation from Washington, endangering the money that the more than 3 million Salvadorans abroad send home.

Money sent home from the U.S. and Canada makes up about 20 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. Some ARENA ads claim an FMLN win would also cause Washington to cancel the program that allows Salvadorans 18 months of legal status in the U.S.

The shadow of the civil war on this election: In the 1980s, Washington sent more than $6 billion to aid a Salvadoran government whose army and death squads killed some 75,000 civilians.

Both leading presidential parties have their roots in the civil war. ARENA was founded by a former death squad leader, Army Col. Roberto D’Aubuisson, in 1981 to represent the interests of wealthy landowners. ARENA has held the presidency for the past 20 years, maintaining close ties with U.S. leaders.

The FMLN was formed in 1980, when five leftist guerrilla groups led the armed struggle against the ruling elite. When peace accords were signed in 1992, the FMLN became a formal political party. Although the FMLN has often won electoral control over large areas of the country and sometimes enjoyed a majority in the Assembly, it has yet to win the presidency.

In the aftermath of the civil war, El Salvador has been hailed as one of the U.S.’s foreign policy successes. Former vice president Dick Cheney spoke proudly of “the Salvador option,” and said “Iraq can expect the same bright future enjoyed by El Salvador.” Before he left office at the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz declared that El Salvador had the best economy in Central America. Reality did not support his statement.

A closer look at the FMLN ticket: Funes is the first FMLN presidential candidate who was not a guerrilla fighter in the civil war.

Like almost everyone in El Salvador, Funes had relatives who were killed in the war, and he attended a college where six Jesuit priests were slain by the Army. But he distances himself from those days of conflict. At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear the traditional red colors.

The former television host has tried to walk a tricky path in politically polarized Latin America. Funes has said that he would be friendly to Venezuala’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, especially if cheap oil is offered, but that his priority is good relations with Washington.

FMLN’s vice-presidential pick is Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former guerilla commander who has served as an FMLN deputy in the National Assembly since 2000. He is meant to assure FMLN supporters that the party hasn’t changed with the choice of Funes.

A closer look at the ARENA ticket: Avila is the former director of the National Civil Police. His running mate is businessman Arturo Zablah, who was previously critical of ARENA’s failed economic policies.

Avila presents himself as a candidate concerned with social investment and jobs, while Zablah highlights his role as a reformer and a businessman. ARENA’s slogan — “Better investments, more jobs” — is aimed at voters’ economic concerns. Another major issue is crime: El Salvador has become the most violent country in Central America, with an average 10 homicides per day.

When addressing security, Avila avoids citing his tenure as director of the police.

Here’s a glimpse of the final days of campaigning: Wednesday evening I attended the last rallies in San Salvador of both the FMLN and ARENA.

What a contrast. The FMLN rally was like a rock concert, with dozens of music groups and dancers and a fireworks display. Funes wore a white "guayabera," a favorite of peasant farmers. About 10,000 FMLN supporters attended, dressed in red shirts or Che Guevara T-shirts.

Avila, meanwhile, spoke at ARENA headquarters before just several hundred supporters. But ARENA had bought time on more than 100 radio stations, a move designed to reach those who can't afford a TV set. Reporters and TV crews attended the ARENA rally in large numbers, a contrast to the FMLN rally. The majority of newspaper and TV stations in the capital are owned by ARENA supporters.


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