By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 16, 2009
MIAMI, March 16 -- Mauricio Funes, a former TV newsman who was recruited to run for president, declared himself the winner of El Salvador's presidential contest Sunday night, bringing into power a leftist party built by former guerrillas and ending two decades of conservative rule.
Funes, a dynamic speaker and political outsider who compares himself to President Obama and pledged to be an agent of change in the small Central American nation, was leading the polls late Sunday night with 51.2 percent of the vote and more than 90 percent of the ballots counted. Turnout was high and election day was mostly calm.
If the lead holds, Funes and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) will take control of a nation struggling with an economic crisis and a murder rate that is among the highest in the world. The country has also suffered through 12 years of civil war, which left more than 70,000 people dead.
Funes's opponent, former National Police chief Rodrigo Ávila, who represented the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), was trailing with 48.7 percent of the vote. Ávila conceded defeat, telling supporters, "We will be a constructive opposition."
During a rough campaign season, Ávila insisted that a win for Funes and the FMLN would transform El Salvador into a hard-left satellite state of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Ávila further warned that Funes would turn El Salvador away from the United States. The two countries have traditionally shared close relations. More than 2 million El Salvadorans live in the United States, and thousands traveled home to vote in the elections.
Funes promised to create a broad government composed of FMLN members and outsiders like himself. He said he sought a close working relationship with the United States and vowed to champion the cause of El Salvador's poor. "This is the happiest night of my life, and I want it to be the night of El Salvador's greatest hope," he said. "I want to thank all the people who voted for me and chose that path of hope and change."