Supporters of Salvadorean presidential candidate for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, attend an early commemoration of the International Women Day in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 2, 2014. (Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

A former Marxist guerrilla who has promised to continue the government’s popular social programs is poised to win El Salvador’s presidential runoff election Sunday, giving the ruling party a second consecutive term.

Most polls show Salvador
Sánchez Cerén, 69, of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, with a lead that ranges from 10 to 18 percentage points ahead of San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, the candidate of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

Quijano, 67, campaigned with Cold War references to the country’s 12-year civil war, in which the United States backed the Salvadoran government against the FMLN to stop the spread of communism in Latin America. Quijano said Sánchez Cerén, one of the top rebel commanders, would take the Central American country down a communist path and invoked images of Venezuela’s late socialist president Hugo Chávez.

“The FMLN proposals are based in giving the country’s sovereignty to Venezuela,” he said during the campaign.

But analysts say the strategy backfired in the country of 6 million, where people are more concerned with gang violence and a sluggish economy than with ghosts of the past.

“[It] only works with one sector of society, the most conservative one in Salvadoran society, which is still afraid of an electoral victory by the FMLN,” said political analyst Álvaro Artiga.

Sánchez Cerén said his approach to governance will be as moderate as that of his presidential model, Uruguayan President José Mujica, another former guerrilla who formed an inclusive government.

El Salvador has had one of the highest murder rates in the world, even with a 2012 gang truce that was billed as reducing the country’s daily average of 14 dead — the majority gang members — by half.

President Mauricio Funes, a former television journalist who did not participate in the war, was elected in 2009 as the FMLN’s first leader of the country, unseating decades of ARENA governments. Sánchez Cerén would be the first true guerrilla to lead the country. He helped negotiate the 1992 peace accords that ended the war; the conflict left 76,000 people dead and 12,000 missing.

He campaigned door to door while his party worked to paint ARENA as the party of corruption. Funes pushed the investigation of former ARENA president Francisco Flores, formerly Quijano’s campaign manager, over the destination of millions of dollars in aid received from Taiwan.

Quijano criticized Funes for negotiating with criminals in coming up with the truce between the country’s two largest and most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street.

After an initial drop in killings in 2013, murders are on the rise again this year. According to police, between Jan. 1 and March 1, there were 501 murders, 106 more than in the same period of 2013. And many dead are starting to be discovered in mass graves, fueling criticism that the truce did nothing more than cause the gangs to hide their victims and create the illusion of less crime.

Sánchez Cerén said he will fight crime by boosting community investment, improving education and strengthening the police.

He also has pledged to continue Funes’s social programs, including giving books, shoes and uniforms to school children, seeds and fertilizers to the poorest farmers, and a pension to the elderly.

— Associated Press