SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The candidate of a leftist political party with its roots in a Marxist guerrilla movement has claimed a narrow victory in El Salvador presidential election Sunday.
Former TV journalist Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), narrowly beat Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), the conservative party that's ruled the country for 20 years, to become the first leftist party president in the nation's history.
Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. supported Arena and other right-wing parties in their brutal war with the FMLN, which was backed by Cuba and by the leftist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.
Now, however, Funes is the latest in a string of victorious leftist presidential candidates running on anti-free-market platforms across Latin America. His win came in the face of the ruling party's campaign to connect Funes with Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the U.S. and an ally of Cuba's Fidel Castro.
"This is a new era for us, this is a triumph for the whole country, and we will triumph over the next five years," said Gloria Maria Ramirez, who was almost in tears as she rushed to celebrate in a central plaza in San Salvador.
Salvadorans throughout the capital jumped into the back of pickup trucks, waving red FMLN flags and honking horns, and set off fireworks into the night sky.
While the election is a democratic crossroads for El Salvador, the new president faces immense challenges ahead, including an economy that's inextricably linked to the struggling U.S. market and declining remittances from Salvadorans living abroad, rising unemployment, and gang violence that makes this country one of the most dangerous in the world.
These are the same problems that pushed many voters away from the conservative ruling party, but they'll require intense bridge-building by the FMLN, which has won local races since its 1992 transformation from a guerrilla army into a political party, but until now had never captured the executive office.
"Given the global crisis, the winner is inheriting a country with extremely adverse circumstances," said Julia Evelyn Martinez, an economist at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
Funes's victory with 51 percent of the vote was in large part a rejection of the status quo, in terms of violent crime and the economy.
"I want to thank all the people who voted for me and chose that path of hope and change," said Funes in accepting victory.
While Arena is considered tough on crime, it failed to stop street violence by gangs or maras. That Avila is a former police chief didn't boost his party's case: The murder rate is 60.9 per 100,000 habitants, up from 41.3 a decade ago, according to government figures.
Even though Arena has focused on the creation of a manufacturing sector in El Salvador, making ends meet is a daily struggle for most Salvadorans. In 2007, 57.5 percent were considered underemployed, according to government figures provided by Gerson Martinez, an FMLN lawmaker. Among those ages 15 to 24, the number of those unemployed and underemployed is 62.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the average cost of living for a family is $760 a month. The minimum wage in a factory job is just $173 a month.
"In the economic realm, people tend to blame Arena for bad performance of the economy," says Miguel Cruz, a former polling director in San Salvador and now a political analyst.
But troubles are expected to worsen before getting better. More than 2 million of the nation's 7 million residents live abroad in cities such as Los Angeles, sending money home in what's a crucial engine of El Salvador's economy: Remittances represent 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
The flow of cash from abroad has grown unabated over the past decade. But it's expected to drop by 5 percent next year, said Manuel Orozco, the director of remittances and development at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
Martinez said that, despite the challenges ahead, she believes that Funes will be able to create a model that favors national production, for example, and boost jobs instead of favoring multinationals. "The way (the FMLN) will deal with the crisis will lessen the social conflict, people will give them space to make the changes needed," she said.
A new economic model is precisely what scares some voters, however. Jose Ramon Iraheta, a flower vendor with Arena flags hanging from his street stall, said that Arena is the party that's best placed to generate employment and keep foreign investment flowing into the country. "Leftists take over the country and investors run away," he said.
Many voters said they worry that an FMLN victory means a government like that of Venezuelan President Chavez, a vociferous U.S. critic. Funes himself tried to temper such fears throughout his campaign, calling Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva his model.
Factions within the FMLN, however, embrace Chavez's vision. "It will be interesting to see which tendency predominates," said Cruz, "and whether once in government (the administration) is more a moderate left or a Chavista left."
Many residents were drawn to Funes because he represents a more moderate face of the left. As a talk show host on prime-time television, he never shied away from taking on corporate media giants and schooled a postwar society in freedom of expression.
Iris de Cisco, a mother of three, said she voted for Funes because, "We were sick of misery, poverty, corruption." She's not worried that he'll alienate the U.S., which considers El Salvador an important regional ally.
Orozco said that, while Arena threatened that an FMLN victory would spell trouble for the countryï¿½s relationship with the U.S., he expects it to remain stable, especially on key issues such as narcotrafficking.
Funes, for one, has said that he'll respect a free-trade deal with the U.S. and keep the dollar as the official currency. The Obama administration had stated its willingness to work with either candidate.
The vote wasn't a landslide, and it came on the heels of a fierce and dirty campaign. Building coalitions will be critical for Funes, who must move quickly to temper brewing problems in the country, said Martinez. The FMLN might have trouble achieving simple majorities in the legislative assembly, where the FMLN holds 32 seats and Arena, 34.
If the opposition blocks Funes, "The crisis will only deepen," she said.
In conceding defeat, Avila promised his supporters: "We will be a constructive opposition."