El Salvador, Costa Rica Vote For New Leaders, Political Stagnation On The Line

Presidential elections in two Central American countries Sunday are both referendums on political stagnation, with voters in Costa Rica deciding whether to oust the long-ruling party, and voters in El Salvador deciding whether to bring it back to power.

El Salvador's ruling leftist party faces an uphill battle to keep the presidency after only one term, with critics saying the government of President Mauricio Funes did little to energize a sluggish economy and reduce gang crime.

In Costa Rica, a ruling conservative party that is battling corruption allegations is being challenged by a charismatic left-leaning congressman.

Experts say both of Sunday's votes will result in runoffs, as neither candidate leading in the polls is likely to get the 50 percent plus one vote needed to declare victory.

In El Salvador, Vice President Salvador Sanchez had a moderate lead going into the vote in his bid to extend the rule of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the party of former civil war guerrillas that defeated the long-ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, for the first time in 2009.

Trailing closely behind is ARENA candidate Norman Quijano, the 67-year-old mayor of San Salvador.

A former television journalist, Funes has won the support of the poorest sectors of Salvadoran society by implementing several social programs, including giving books, shoes and uniforms to school children, seeds and fertilizers to the poorest farmers and a small pension to the elderly.

"The people in rural areas, in marginalized sectors, people with lower levels of education were once the main political capital of ARENA, but they are now the FMLN's electoral stronghold," said Jeanette Aguilar, director of the Public Opinion Institute at the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas.

For Salvadorans, the main issues are a sluggish economy and rampant gang crime in the country of 6 million people.

Under Funes, leaders of El Salvador's Mara street gangs declared a truce in several cities that yielded mixed results.

"Homicides have gone down but (the gangs) are still killing, now they hide the victims," said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development. "Extortion has intensified and gangs have solidified their control over territory."

In the last year, police have found mass graves containing the bodies of at least 24 alleged gang victims.

On top of the lack of security, Funes wasn't able to control the deficit or create jobs. But his poor handling of the economy may be not enough to bring back ARENA, said Omar Serrano, of the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas.

"The population is not satisfied with the current government, is not convinced that the FMLN should continue to rule, but it's very much convinced that ARENA shouldn't return to government," Serrano said.

A poll published Jan. 15 shows Sanchez, a 69-year-old former guerrilla commander, has 37 percent support, compared to 30 percent for Quijano. Former President Tony Saca is in third place with 21 percent.

Poll workers from the Public Opinion Institute at the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas visited 1,580 likely voters at home from Jan. 4-9 and asked them to fill a sample ballot. The survey had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.

Many voters remain undecided. "The FMLN seems to have better proposals, but I haven't decided on my vote," said Esteban Mejia, a 45-year-old taxi driver.

In Costa Rica, the ruling National Liberation Party has been beset by infighting and corruption allegations and its presidential candidate, Johnny Araya, now faces three rivals, which experts say could splinter the vote Sunday.

Araya, who has been the mayor of the capital of San Jose since 2003, must overcome the discontent over high unemployment during President Laura Chinchilla's government.

Araya's main contender is Jose Maria Villalta, a 36-year-old congressman, who is running with the Broad Front Party. Villalta made international headlines last year after a bill he proposed made same-sex unions legal in the country. The bill passed after most congress members failed to notice that the final version had eliminated earlier language that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

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