- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

UPDATED:

In Sunday’s elections, El Salvador’s former Marxist rebels who have become a political party waged their strongest challenge for the presidency in two decades, threatening to unseat the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance for the first time since the end of the country’s civil war.

Mauricio Funes, candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), had received 51.1 percent of the vote, while Rodrigo Avila had 48.9 percent, with about 85 percent of returns counted late Sunday night, election officials said.

The campaign was wrought with bitter accusations by both candidates and their parties. Mr. Funes, a former television journalist, accused the ruling alliance, known locally as the Arena party, of attempting to frighten voters with anti-leftist rhetoric. He also said Arena would try to steal the presidential election.

Mr. Avila, 44, warned voters in the weeks leading up to the election that a Funes administration would turn El Salvador into a Venezuela-like socialist state and damage the nation’s ties with the United States.

Voters in many Latin American nations - including neighboring Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador - have chosen leftist governments that are often openly hostile to Washington.

Mr. Funes, 49, said El Salvador’s strong political and economic relationship with the United States would remain intact.

Salvadorans residing in the United States send about $4 billion a year in remittances to the poor Central American country - money that accounts for a large portion of its economy. The United States also is the leading market for the country’s exports.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement ahead of Sunday’s vote, saying it would work with whoever wins El Salvador’s presidency, an apparent shift from the George W. Bush administration, which suggested ahead of 2004 presidential elections that a win by the FMLN would affect relations with the United States.

While the Obama administration appears willing to work with either candidate, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed concerns about an FMLN-run El Salvador.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, and 45 other members of Congress warned of “FMLN extremism” and “potential threats to our security interests.”

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