Next Salvadoran Leader Vows Moderate Rule

President-elect Mauricio Funes greets supporters Sunday night in San Salvador after winning 51 percent of the vote.
President-elect Mauricio Funes greets supporters Sunday night in San Salvador after winning 51 percent of the vote. (By Luis Romero -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

After winning a bitter presidential contest Sunday night, El Salvador's president-elect promised yesterday that he would serve as a moderate, open-minded leader who would work to improve economic conditions, lift the poor and heal lingering wounds in a country that fought a 12-year civil war.

The win by Mauricio Funes represents a historic turn for tiny El Salvador, bringing the left into power after two decades of conservative rule and awarding the government to a party built by former guerrillas and communist fighters. The party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), fought against the country's U.S.-backed, right-wing governments from 1980 to 1992, when a U.N.-brokered peace ended the fighting.

Funes, a veteran television journalist who for many years anchored a popular talk show, won the presidency with approximately 51 percent of the vote. Balloting on Sunday was mostly calm and was followed by raucous celebrations among Funes's supporters after he declared victory. U.S. State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood yesterday described the vote as "a very free, fair and democratic election."

Funes's opponent, Rodrigo Ávila, a former chief of the National Police and head of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, took 49 percent. With current President Elías Antonio Saca by his side, Ávila conceded the election but promised to lead a vigilant and constructive opposition.

Funes, 49 and making his first foray into politics, compared himself to President Obama during the campaign and promised to bring change. Ávila insisted that Funes was nothing more than a well-known face, whose real masters would be the hard-liners in the FMLN and who would push the country closer to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Funes denied that yesterday.

"As I have said, and I will repeat it, my government will be guided by the spirit of national unity," Funes said at a brief news conference in San Salvador.

Funes vowed to convert El Salvador into "the most dynamic economy in Central America." During the campaign, he frequently pointed out that many of his supporters come from the middle and professional classes. Funes, a former correspondent for CNN en Espanol, also promised Monday to strengthen relations with the United States.

"This is not the time for revenge. This is time for political understanding," he told supporters yesterday. "The time has come for the excluded, the opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity."

"Nothing traumatizing is going to happen here," Funes said in an interview with local Megavision television yesterday morning. "There will be no confiscation, we will not reverse any privatizations. We will not jeopardize private property. There is no reason at this moment for fear."

Ernesto Rivas Gallont, a political analyst in San Salvador and a columnist for La Prensa Grafica newspaper, said Funes had won "because his message resonated among the people, triumphing over the intense campaign of fear that was unleashed against him. The people were tired of 20 years of the conservative government. The electorate has matured."

Special correspondent Raúl Gutiérrez in San Salvador contributed to this report.

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