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Ex-leftist rebel wins election for El Salvador president

SAN SALVADOR--Former leftist rebel commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren has won last Sunday's presidential election in El Salvador by a razor-thin margin, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said.

He inherits leadership of a country beset with widespread poverty and violence from powerful street gangs.

He beat rightist Norman Quijano by less than half a percentage point, said the tribunal, which now must give the latter three days to appeal the tally.

Sanchez Ceren of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front won 50.11 percent of the votes, compared to 49.98 percent for Quijano of the right-wing ARENA party, the tribunal said as it reported the final count from the runoff election. The first round was Feb. 2.

“The people, united, will never be defeated,” FMLN supporters chanted at the hotel where the tally was held as they awaited the final result.

The tight margin of the final result is a big surprise as the leftist had been favored to win by as many as 10 percentage points.

A victory rally has been called for Saturday night in the capital San Salvador.

Sanchez Ceren, 69, is vice president in the current government of President Mauricio Funes. In power since 2009, it is the country's first leftist government and ended two decades of right-wing rule.

But this marks the first time Salvadorans have voted an actual former rebel commander from their 1979-1992 civil war to be president.

Sanchez Ceren is a former teacher and ex-education minister, who was one of five top guerrilla commanders during the civil war.

The current FMLN is the political party that emerged from the guerrilla army of the same name in the war, in which the government was backed by the United States.

The FMLN and ARENA were the main protagonists of that conflict.

The final tally was identical to the preliminary result first announced Sunday.

Quijano has asked the elections be nullified on grounds of fraud. The tribunal still has to rule on this.

Quijano, 67, the mayor of the capital city San Salvador, was a law-and-order candidate and staunch anti-communist who campaigned against the country's high crime rate and the notorious “mara” street gangs behind much of El Salvador's drug dealing and extortion.

Quijano, however, suffered from his links to ex-president Francisco Flores, a former campaign adviser, under scrutiny over US$10 million donated by Taiwan that went missing during his 1999-2004 government.

After the civil war, El Salvador found itself facing violence from the street gangs, which control whole neighborhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.

Forty percent of El Salvador's six million people live in poverty, and the country relies heavily on remittances sent by Salvadorans living abroad — around US$4 billion a year, or 16 percent of the country's GDP.

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