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El Salvador leader dealt setback in legislative vote

March 15, 2012

SAN SALVADOR – The leftist government of President Mauricio Funes suffered a setback in weekend legislative elections which gave the right wing a narrow victory, analysts said Monday.

Funes’s Farabundo Marti party, formed by former rebels and in power since since 2009, got 31 seats in the 84-member unicameral Congress, four less than in the current legislature.

The opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) took 33 seats, and another conservative coalition named GANA and led by ex-president Elias Antonio Saca took a projected 11 seats.

“What the left got was a message from the poor about management of government, said Jorge Daboub, president of the National Association of Private Enterprise. “It was a protest vote.

With more than 89 percent of precincts reporting, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said ARENA was ahead with slightly over 39.7 percent of the vote.

It was closely followed by the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with 36.8 percent.

GANA, a congressional ally of the FMLN, was a distant third with just 9.4 percent of the ballot. Six smaller parties also fielded candidates.

ARENA, which ruled El Salvador for two decades following the country’s civil war, campaigned on a tough anti-crime platform that resonated with many voters tired of rampant crime.

University professor and dissident Roberto Canas said the results should be a wakeup call to the government.

“The FMLN government should view this as a referendum… and should concentrate in the next two years on resolving pressing problems such as security and improving conditions of the middle class,” Canas said.

Mirna de Cordova, 66, told AFP she was looking for change.

“I voted because I want to see changes in this country — our children and grandchildren live just like us, afraid of so much violence,” she said.

De Cordova showed up with her husband Roberto early to vote at a polling station on the outskirts of the capital San Salvador, only to find that polls opened more than an hour behind schedule due to logistical problems.

Like many voters, De Cordova said she wants to toughen laws against crime. Around 14 people are murdered every day in El Salvador, population six million, according to government figures.

While unemployment dropped during the Funes administration, young people continue to emigrate to the United States.

A staggering one in three Salvadorans now live in the United States, providing remittances of more than $3.6 billion in 2011, around one sixth of gross domestic product.

Funes, a political moderate with high approval ratings, has two more years as president in this tiny, densely populated Central American nation.

But his popularity does not necessarily transfer into votes for his party, the FMLN.

In an improvised press conference as he voted Sunday, Funes urged voters to help him “guarantee that the changes that are taking place are strengthened, and not turned back.”

The FMLN has campaigned promising social programs and job creation in a nation with unemployment among one third of the population.

ARENA has pledged a tougher tack against crime and youth gangs, or “Maras,” that now control entire neighborhoods in large cities and smaller communities, which they turn into drug-trafficking havens.

The FMLN was founded by Marxist guerrillas fighting a US-backed government in the 1980s. More than 75,000 people were killed during the 1980-1992 civil war.

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