SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — After a raucous presidential campaign, the candidate of El Salvador's left-wing former guerrilla movement has a chance to oust the right-wing ruling party for the first time in two decades, a shift that government backers say would threaten the Central American nation's economy and its relationship with the United States.
If voters opt for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in Sunday's election, El Salvador also would expand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's regional influence, said loyalists to the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, known by the Spanish acronym ARENA.
Chavez is courting the FMLN. He's pumped 30 million gallons of discounted oil since 2007 to 20 FMLN mayors, who say that the support is strengthening democracy by empowering the poor.
"The more revolution, the more democracy," said Carlos Ruiz, an ex-guerrilla mayor and the vice president of ALBA Petroleos de El Salvador, a joint oil venture with Venezuela.
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"The FMLN has ties to the FARC (Colombian guerrilla movement), Venezuela and Iran.
They're not friends with the United States," said ARENA candidate Rodrigo Avila, who's trailing the FMLN's Mauricio Funes in most polls.
Fans of Funes say that the former TV journalist is a fresh face in Salvadoran politics, while Funes himself argues that ARENA loyalists are stuck in the past and don't realize that the FMLN has "evolved'' from the Marxist guerrilla movement that spun into a political party 17 years ago.
Funes has said that ARENA's "dirty campaign'' is a sign of desperation. He recently told a gathering of supporters: "When the beast is down and wounded, it puts all its effort into delivering that last bite."
In a country of 7 million that remains polarized along the lines of the 1980-1992 civil war, Funes is trying to distance himself from old-school leftists by associating himself with President Barack Obama in campaign advertisements. ARENA ads align him with Chavez, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
"It would be very arrogant of me to compare myself with a statesman of President
Obama's stature," Funes told McClatchy. "But people make that comparison because my candidacy represents hope."
Despite Funes' slogan promising "safe change," critics charge that his party's hard-liners will polarize the country, scare investors and dismantle reforms that ARENA put in place with U.S. backing.
ARENA leaders charge that the FMLN is trying to provoke violence by alleging that the ruling party is planning to rig the election. Since the civil war, during which the Reagan administration backed ARENA, the ruling party has struggled to stamp out a festering gang problem.
Though Avila took on the country's violence with "iron fist'' and ''super iron fist'' crackdowns during two stints as the director of the national police, the murder rate is still among the world's highest.
However, crime is taking a back seat to the faltering economy. According to a February survey by El Salvador's Universidad Centroamericana, 75 percent of those polled said that the economy was the country's primary problem.
Under ARENA, the economy opened to trade and investment, the U.S. dollar replaced El Salvador's currency, the colon, and key industries were privatized. El Salvador saw the highest long-term export growth in Latin America, it boasts one of the region's most competitive economies and the poverty rate has dropped by nearly half since 1991, to about 35 percent.
However, the growth has concentrated about half the wealth in the hands of the richest 20 percent of Salvadorans, according to Universidad Centroamericana economist Melissa Salgado. A confluence of laissez-faire policies, a lack of security and wealth disparities have shaped the capital, in which shopping malls and fast-food joints under heavy private guard are tucked among sprawling slums.
The biggest challenge for Avila, an English-speaking graduate of North Carolina State University, may be convincing Salvadorans that keeping ARENA in power for more than two decades doesn't threaten the country's fledgling democracy with single-party monopoly in the manner of Mexico's once-hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party.
"Everyone deserves a chance, but you have to earn it. That's what I'm trying to do here," Avila said, as a swarm of photo-snapping supporters surrounded him in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The right has used photos of Ruiz snuggled in Chavez's embrace to illustrate the country's sovereignty in demise.
Washington analyst Juan Carlos Hidalgo, of the Cato Institute, said that taking El Salvador down the path of Chavez's socialist model would imperil its economic achievements. FMLN leaders have been open about their intentions to dismantle ARENA's economic reforms.
"As long as the FMLN doesn't leave behind its radical left agenda, every election in El Salvador will be critical for that country's democracy," Hidalgo said.
(Schmidt is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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