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Tense El Salvador election evokes war memories

El Salvador votes today in an emotionally charged presidential election that pits a party founded by Marxist rebels against right-wing civil war foes who have ruled for the past 20 years.

world Updated: Mar 15, 2009 11:21 IST

El Salvador votes on Sunday in an emotionally charged presidential election that pits a party founded by Marxist rebels against right-wing civil war foes who have ruled for the past 20 years.

Tens of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States flew home to vote in a tight race that has reopened wounds from the 1980-92 Cold War-era conflict.

Opinion polls gave a slight lead to leftist front-runner Mauricio Funes, an ex-television reporter, with ruling party conservative Rodrigo Avila close behind.

Picking a candidate with no involvement in its guerrilla past has given Funes' Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, its best chance yet of ousting the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA.

Funes pledges to soothe the blow from a US recession with center-left policies to help the poor, while staying friends with business leaders and with Washington, the FMLN's old foe.

Many are eager to join a move to the left in Latin America, but others are squeamish at the idea of rule by a party schooled in Cuban-style socialism as the economic crisis bites.

Armed clashes between left- and right-wing militants have wounded several people in the capital San Salvador in recent days following a campaign blighted by civil war-era barbs.

"It's worrying. The propaganda has been very ugly. I think we'll see protests tomorrow, neither side is going to accept losing," said Dora Acosta, 59, who plans to keep her family indoors after she finishes her shift as a cook.

REMITTANCES, US DEMAND WANE

A quarter of El Salvador's population lives in the United States -- a close government ally since civil war days - and the tiny nation relies heavily on money sent home by immigrants in the United States.

But those remittances and US demand for Salvadoran factory goods are waning due to the US recession.

Funes, who used to host political talk shows critical of ARENA governments, vows to crack down on corruption and tax evasion and use the funds to create jobs and ease poverty.

He shuns wearing his party's revolutionary red for sharp business suits and insists he is a pro-free market moderate. But his running mate, Salvador Sanchez, is an FMLN hardliner who could drag policy to the left.

Avila, 44, a former national police chief, was an army sniper who has admitted killing leftist rebels in the war and has expressed admiration for right-wing death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, who founded ARENA in 1981.

With close ties to business, ARENA says it is best qualified to handle an economic slowdown. In its two decades in power, the party has built up manufacturing and service sectors in a country that used to live off producing indigo and coffee.

"Our party has changed and evolved over time. My trajectory has been one of somebody who believes in peace," Avila said on Friday, asked about his past. But he acknowledged El Salvador still had far to go in mending the deep political divide.

DISILLUSIONED

College graduates in El Salvador say they struggle to find jobs. Factory workers earn just $5 a day -- the price of a 10-minute taxi ride -- as high fuel prices have pushed up living costs. Rampant poverty has fed violent street gangs.

"This government has closed the door to young people. The education system is useless, we are far behind," said Jose Martinez, 20, who left college for a job making cake boxes.

As young voters grow increasingly disillusioned, the FMLN has made strong gains in recent congressional and mayoral races.

"The people have the right to a transition of power," said his friend Noe Argueta, 21, an engineering student. "The FMLN is no longer a party of rebels. It's much more mature."

Some 4.2 million people are registered to cast ballots from 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) on Sunday. The government estimates 40,000 immigrants in the United States have come home to vote.

Workers living abroad send home around $3.5 billion a year, nearly a fifth of El Salvador's gross domestic product. But their incomes are dropping with the US recession. Remittances fell 8.4 percent in January from a year earlier.

"My five children are in the United States but only three of them are still sending me money because they've cut their hours," said Maria Aminta Murillo in the northern town of La Aldeita.

Scores of Salvadorans have left in recent years to seek work. Thousands also fled during the civil war, which killed 75,000 people.