- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador El Salvador’s former guerrillas are poised to take over the country, 17 years after peace accords ended the country’s civil war.

But this revolution is a democratic one, led by a charismatic television journalist named Mauricio Funes who has brought new hope to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a guerrilla group turned political party.

Polls in advance of Sunday’s six-party election indicate the FMLN will increase its 32-seat delegation in the 84-member legislature while keeping the capital and winning most of the 262 mayoral races.

Sunday’s key contest pits former guerrilla Violeta Menjivar against physician Norman Quijano of the conservative, governing Arena party in the capital, where voters wearing party colors began lining up well before polls opened.

The true test will come March 15, when Mr. Funes is favored to become the first FMLN president since El Salvador’s 1992 peace accords ended a civil war, which killed 75,000 people. Most polls give him a lead of at least nine points over his opponent, ruling-party candidate Rodrigo Avila.

Sunday’s vote “could be a preamble of what could happen in the presidential vote,” said analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez of the Lutheran University. “Arena and the right are worried because Mauricio has everything he needs to win.”

The FMLN has struggled to win over Salvadorans politically in the past 17 years. The party won just two seats fewer than Arena did in the last legislative elections, and it has governed the capital for 12 years, but it has never completely overcome its rebel image - partly because its hard-left faction pushed aside party moderates when choosing candidates in past presidential elections.

Arena, which has controlled the presidency since 1989, has flooded radio and television with ads trying to discredit Mr. Funes and the FMLN as radicals. But Mr. Gutierrez said Salvadorans seem tired of the old tactics.

“There is a generalized discontent. Twenty years of government has worn out Arena and the campaigns of fear - saying the communists are coming - are not working,” he said.

High gas prices and soaring food costs took a toll on President Tony Saca’s approval ratings, and soured voters on Arena.

Industrial engineer Mauricio Valdiviezo, who was just 14 years old when the war ended, arrived at the polls wearing a “Cuba” T-shirt and an FMLN cap.

“We Salvadorans are getting rid of the fear,” he said.

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