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In El Salvador Vote, Big Opportunity for Leftists

As for the Obama comparison, Ávila is skeptical. "I don't know what he's talking about," Ávila said in an interview before a midday rally at a soccer field in San Vicente on Sunday, as he was being mobbed by women and children wanting a hug. "He's claiming a lot of different things. I don't know about the comparison. Obama speaks English. Obama graduated from college."

Ávila speaks fluent English and graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in industrial engineering. He also attended the FBI National Academy. Funes speaks little English and did not finish his literature degree at the University of Central America.

The elections continue El Salvador's tradition of extreme political polarization. Two of the country's leading newspapers are so closely tied to either the FMLN or ARENA that their campaign coverage is unabashedly partisan. The same is true of TV stations. One evening last week, a news show asked viewers to call in and vote: Is FMLN vice presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén a communist, or not? In recent weeks, crews of FMLN and ARENA supporters have been busy painting over each other's banners and colors.

"The right has stoked the fears that the communists are coming, that they're going to nationalize the people's chickens, ship their kids off to political education camps and that the government will only allow them to buy one pair of shoes," said Carlos Dada, an independent journalist and editor of El Faro, an online newspaper based in El Salvador that covers Central America. "Fear is the protagonist in this election. This is an emotional democracy, not a deliberative democracy."

Still, Dada said he's hopeful. "El Salvador is entering a new stage, no matter who wins. There will be change here. If ARENA wins, which is still possible, they'll undertake reforms, too. They have to. People are demanding it. And Funes? Listen to him. He doesn't talk like a communist, he doesn't talk like a militant, he doesn't even talk like someone from the FMLN. What he sounds like is a very liberal democrat."

Assessing Funes, political analyst Leonel Gomez called him "a decent man. Maybe arrogant, which will help him. He needs to have a lot of faith in himself to believe that he can fix things."

According to the most recent polls by Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University of Central America's public opinion institute, 60 percent of Salvadorans don't want ARENA to govern another term. But a third of those surveyed also believe that the FMLN is influenced by Cuba and Venezuela, and even among its supporters, 25 percent question whether the FMLN has the ability to govern.

The February polls show Funes up 49 percent to Ávila 's 31 percent, but Aguilar cautioned that the race remains dynamic. Other polling shows the race to be a virtual dead heat.

During his speech in Metapan, Funes promised that "we will end the economy of privilege for the few," a reference to the so-called 14 major families of the Salvadoran elite, who have dominated the country for generations. He urged the crowd not to believe ARENA's "propaganda." "They're desperate because they know they're going to lose," he said. "If you vote for me, light is at the end of this tunnel."

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