SAN SALVADOR — El Salvador’s presidential runoff was hung up Monday in a near tie between an ex-guerrilla leader and an arch conservative mayor as tension mounted over who would be proclaimed the winner.
Preliminary results showed Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the former rebel commander, edging out conservative candidate Norman Quijano by 6,634 votes, 50.11 percent to 49.89.
The tally was a big surprise as the leftist had been favored to win by as many as 10 percentage points.
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said it would not call a winner until a manual count has been completed, possibly not before Wednesday.
The left celebrated victory for Sanchez Ceren and his Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front anyway, while Quijano, the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), cried foul.
Sanchez Ceren expressed confidence he was the victor.
“We are happy and committed to the country because we have no doubt that the results of the preliminary tally are going to be confirmed,” he said.
Quijano said on Twitter he demanded a ballot by ballot re-count. “In our tally, I am the president elect,” he wrote. But he pledged to respect the results of the manual count.
He said earlier “We are not going to permit fraud of the Chavista or Maduro type in Venezuela. This is El Salvador.”
The FMLN and ARENA were the main protagonists of a bloody 1979-92 civil war, and the election results showed how divided the country remains more than two decades later.
“We won the first round and now we have triumphed again in the runoff,” Sanchez Ceren told supporters amid an explosion of fireworks.
But his ARENA counterpart was convinced its side had won.
Quijano claimed victory in a speech to supporters, ominously warning that El Salvador’s military was “aware of the fraud that is being perpetrated.”
Sanchez Ceren had conciliatory words for his rival.
“We can say right now that you have the doors open to work with us to move El Salvador forward,” he said.
Election officials, likely expecting that vote results will be challenged and there will be calls for a recount, urged both sides to wait for final results.
“This tribunal recommends and orders that no party declare itself winner given such close results,” said Supreme Electoral Tribunal president Eugenio Chicas in a TV and radio message.
Teacher, rebel, President?
Sanchez Ceren, 69, is a former teacher and ex-education minister, who was one of five top guerrilla commanders during the civil war.
He served as vice president under Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and FMLN candidate whose election in 2009 ended two decades of conservative rule.
If his victory is confirmed, Sanchez Ceren would be the first former FMLN commander to become president.
Meanwhile Quijano, 67, the mayor of the capital city San Salvador, is a law and order candidate and staunch anti-communist who campaigned against the country’s high crime rate and the notorious “mara” street gangs behind much of El Salvador’s drug dealing and extortion.
Quijano, however, suffered from his links to ex-president Francisco Flores, a former campaign adviser, under scrutiny over $10 million donated by Taiwan that went missing during his 1999-2004 government.
After the civil war, El Salvador found itself facing violence from the street gangs, which control whole neighborhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.
Forty percent of El Salvador’s six million people live in poverty, and the country relies heavily on remittances sent by Salvadorans living abroad — around $4 billion a year, or 16 percent of the country’s GDP.