In presidential vote, El Salvador picks between right and left
Voters in crime-plagued El Salvador headed to the polls Sunday to decide whether to keep the leftist party in power or return to conservative rule.
This small but densely populated Central American country of six million is struggling to control rampant gang violence and still burdened by the legacy of its bitter 1979-1992 civil war.
Amid tight security, some 4.9 million voters were called to choose a successor to President Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
While there are five candidates, two are far ahead in pre-election surveys.
The top contender is Funes's vice president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former civil war guerrilla commander who on Sunday promised an inclusive government if he wins.
"We are committed to ensuring transparency" in the election, the ruling party candidate said as he and his wife went to cast ballots at a polling station in the northeast of the capital, promising to respect the results.
The 69-year-old added he would be "open to the participation of different sectors" and open the doors to all candidates to work together for "a grand national accord."
His main rival, ex-San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, 67, of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), voted at a school in the west of the city, praising what he called "peaceful elections."
Antonio Saca, president from 2004 to 2009 who is running a distant third as the head of a coalition of right-wing parties, said he was "optimistic" as he cast his ballot.
The latest polls predict that Sanchez Ceres, a former teacher, will garner between 38 and 47 percent of votes -- not enough to guarantee a first round victory.
If no candidate obtains at least 50 percent, the top two will meet again in a runoff scheduled for March 9.
Since the early hours of the morning, supporters of the various candidates have set up stands in their party's colors across the capital helping voters find their polling stations.
Overshadowing the electoral campaign are allegations of corruption against ARENA ex-president Francisco Flores (1999-2009).
Congress is investigating Flores over the whereabouts of $10 million donated by Taiwan between 2003 and 2004. Flores was an adviser to the Quijano campaign.
The next president's challenges include a crackdown on gang violence. Known in the region as "maras," the gangs control whole neighborhoods and run drug distribution and extortion rackets.
Homicides were running at 14 per day until a gang truce in March 2012, which helped bring the rate down to seven per day.
Sanchez Ceren is proposing a program that would allow ex-gang members to rejoin society, while Quijano is calling for a tough law-and-order crackdown on crime.
If elected, Sanchez Ceren would be Latin America's third ex-guerrilla president, following in the footsteps of Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Uruguay's Jose Mujica.
Polls opened at 7 am (1300 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 5 pm (2300 GMT). The first official results are expected around 10 pm (0400 GMT Monday), election officials said.