Reporting from San Salvador - Salvadorans on Sunday elected a former TV reporter as the country's first leftist president, unseating a conservative party that ruled for two decades and choosing a government that will be dominated by former guerrillas.
Mauricio Funes, an affable political moderate running on behalf of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, claimed victory after nearly complete returns gave him a lead that experts said was insurmountable.
"This is the happiest night of my life, and I also want it to be the night of greatest hope for El Salvador," an emotional Funes said in a crowded hotel conference room, as cameras flashed and supporters cheered. "Thank you for choosing the path of hope and for overcoming fear."
He called for a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration similar to that which helped end El Salvador's bloody civil war 17 years ago.
With this victory, the FMLN completed its evolution from a coalition of Marxist rebels fighting U.S.-backed regimes in El Salvador's rugged hills to a broad-based party.
Funes, 49, who helped give the FMLN a following beyond its traditional militant base, frequently compared himself to President Obama as an agent of change and promised to maintain good relations with Washington. Instead of the FMLN red, he wore white guayabera shirts and dark business suits as he traversed the nation and pressed his message of national unity.
The Arena party's candidate, Rodrigo Avila, acknowledged defeat Sunday night. Armando Calderon Sol, an Arena leader and former president, told The Times: "It is irreversible. History is written."
FMLN supporters took to the streets in celebration. They filled downtown plazas here in the capital, waving red flags and posters of their candidate and chanting "Mauricio! Mauricio!" -- as well as the old standard, "The left, united, will never be defeated."
Analysts said a leftist win would indicate that voters were more concerned with poverty, unemployment and raging crime than the fear, fanned by the right, that Funes and the FMLN would push El Salvador down a radical communist path.
"The campaign of fear did not work 100% because the desire for change, even among conservatives, was so strong," said Raymundo Calderon, dean of the social studies institute of the University of El Salvador. "We were in such a difficult situation but always supporting the same politics. There's a limit. People decided they had put up with it 20 years and said, 'Enough.' "
U.N.-brokered peace accords ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992. About 75,000 people were killed in 12 years of fighting and atrocities by death squads, some of which were associated with founders of the ruling Arena party. During the war years and since, around a quarter of El Salvador's population -- about 2.5 million people -- fled or was driven to the U.S., with many ending up in Southern California.
Despite widespread disenchantment with the Arena-led government, the party enjoys the backing of major media and big business, and in its closing days the race was too close to call. Avila, Arena's candidate, is a former police commander who repeatedly invoked his Catholic beliefs and warned that a leftist victory would align El Salvador perilously with Cuba and Venezuela.
About 60% of the electorate cast ballots. Walking, riding in dark-windowed SUVs or piled in the backs of pickup trucks, Salvadorans surged to polling stations. Buses festooned with the flags of one party or another clogged streets.
Thousands of Salvadorans returned to their homeland from the United States to vote, including Tere Torres and her two adult sons, who flew into town Saturday from Los Angeles and were up at dawn to head to the fairgrounds to vote.
"It was worth making the trip so that we don't forget why people like us left in the first place," said William Torres, 24, a graphic designer in Los Angeles. "The economic situation is really bad and people need to know they have opportunity based not just on privilege and what party you belong to."
His mother, who left El Salvador while the war raged and now cleans houses in Culver City, said the election was too important to skip. "It could be that the change we wanted for so long is possible this time," she said.
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El Salvador remains divided by great social and economic inequity, with a vast underclass struggling to afford food and medicine.
But the idea of dramatic change is exactly what scared some voters.
"What do we need a revolution for?" asked Alex Aviles, 18, a first-time voter and law student, dressed in a red, white and blue Arena T-shirt. "People don't have money because they don't work."
Arena conjured up images of the war to paint the FMLN as violent radicals and plastered San Salvador with posters linking Funes with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. El Salvador has been a staunch U.S. ally. Washington backed repressive Salvadoran governments in the 1970s and 1980s, and equipped and trained its army against the guerrillas. El Salvador sent troops to Iraq at President Bush's request, and under Arena made the U.S. dollar its currency.
Funes said repeatedly he would maintain good relations with the U.S., and reached out to moderate leftists like Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Funes did not fight in the civil war, but his running mate, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, was a guerrilla commander, as was most of the FMLN leadership. Avila, though not an army man, was an expert sharpshooter and joined an ad hoc paramilitary unit during the 1989 offensive in the capital, the fiercest of the war. He has acknowledged killing enemy combatants.
It is the hard-line FMLN leaders accompanying Funes that most worry his right-wing opponents. These include Sanchez, who led an anti-U.S. march in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States; and Jose Luis Merino, leader of the old guard of the Communist Party, a part of FMLN.
"He can't be sure the party will be with him," Hector Silva, editor of the La Prensa newspaper, said of Funes. "The party is the vehicle to arrive at power, but the mentality of the old FMLN communists is still alive."
But others say the FMLN has no interest in rendering the country ungovernable.
"We all needed a reality therapy, and the FMLN has had that," said Gerson Martinez, a former guerrilla commander and one of the authors of Funes' government plan.
Much of the FMLN's popularity is a result of discontent with poverty, violent gang crime and corruption.
Eduardo Ramon Recino, 46, a trash collector, said he had always voted for Arena. But supporting a wife and five children on a salary of about $15 a day, living in a tiny cinder-block home where a hammock is the main piece of furniture, made Recino reconsider.
"It's our tradition to vote for Arena," he said. "But you know, they haven't really done a lot to solve our problems. For good or for bad, the country needs a change."
Silvia Gomez, 51, of the San Salvador working-class suburb of Soyapango remembered the military patrols that spooked her neighborhood and took away her brother-in-law, never to be seen again.
"We knew this day would come one day," she said of a likely FMLN victory. "Not like a dream, but like something you see out there and it just takes a little more effort to reach it."
Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.