A former left-wing guerrilla leader took a strong early lead in El Salvador’s presidential election Sunday, early results showed, but he could still face a runoff against a conservative rival who wants to deploy the army to fight powerful street gangs.

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel commander who became a top leader with the now-ruling leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during El Salvador’s civil war, had 49.2 percent support with votes in from about 45.4 percent of polling booths. His right-wing opponent, former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, had 38.9 percent.

If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will go to a runoff March 9.

Two foreign election officials said they expected the vote to go to a runoff given a closer race in El Salvador’s two most populated districts. The FMLN took power after the last election in 2009, and Sanchez Ceren’s campaign was helped by its popular welfare policies, including pensions and free school supplies.

Even if he falls short of first-round victory, Sanchez Ceren appears to be in a strong position ahead of a runoff. The third-place candidate, Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 until 2009, had about 11 percent support. But it was not clear whether more of his supporters would back Sanchez Ceren or Quijano in a second round.

After leaving office, Saca broke away from Quijano’s Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of the civil war in 1992, and Sanchez Ceren has tried to appeal to moderate voters in this campaign as he tries to keep his party in power.

But the tight race reflects a deep divide that dates to the 12-year war, which killed 75,000 people, and sluggish economic growth has contributed to the surge of violent street gangs.

Quijano is ARENA’s candidate and has campaigned on a promise of tough policies to crack down on the gangs.

Sanchez Ceren rejects the idea of deploying the army to fight the gangs and instead vows to forge a political pact to break through gridlock that has kept a divided Congress from carrying out reforms to tackle crime and weak economic growth.

“More than ever we need a new national accord, so that we do not have partisan policies but policies that are backed by all the people of El Salvador,” he said after voting Sunday.

— Reuters