Salvador's electoral court declares leftist candidate winner of presidential election

The Associated Press

Supporters of Norman Quijano, presidential candidate for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), protest alleged electoral fraud in front of the Attorney Generals office in San Salvador, El Salvador, Monday, March 10, 2014. El Salvador's too-close-to-call presidential runoff election has raised competing claims of victory from Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former fighter for leftist guerrillas and Norman Quijano, the candidate of the once long-ruling conservative party that fought a civil war from 1980 to 1992. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

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By MARCOS ALEMAN, Associated Press

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador's electoral court on Thursday declared leftist candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren the winner of the tight presidential election, making him the first former rebel commander to win the presidency of a nation where 76,000 died in a civil war.

With all the votes counted, the electoral court announced on its website that Sanchez Ceren, candidate of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the FMLN, got 50.1 percent of the votes. Norman Quijano, of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as ARENA, got 49.9 percent.

With about 3 million ballots cast in Sunday's runoff election, Sanchez Ceren won by less than 7,000 votes, and Quijano's party vowed to challenge the results unless authorities agree to a vote-by-vote recount.

Outgoing President Mauricio Funes was a journalist who was sympathetic to the FMLN rebels during the 1980-1992 civil war but was never a guerrilla, unlike Sanchez Ceren, who most recently served as Funes' vice president.

A scare campaign comparing El Salvador's left to Venezuela's brought Quijano from far behind in the polls to near tie. But Sanchez Ceren has sought to distance himself from the Venezuela's crises. "El Salvador is not and cannot be Venezuela," Sanchez Ceren said during the campaign.

Instead, he said his role model is Uruguayan President Jose "Pepe" Mujica, who spent 14 years in prison during Uruguay's dictatorship. A flower-farming former guerrilla, Mujica gives away 90 percent of his salary, doesn't have a bank account, drives a 41-year-old Volkswagen and never wears a tie.

"Mujica is the example to follow, because he works on two main fronts: development, and social investment," Sanchez Ceren said.

He has promised to maintain good relations with the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran migrants live.

Much like Mujica, Sanchez Ceren, 69, favors rolled-up shirt sleeves and usually eschews suits and ties. Close associates still call him "Profe," or "Teacher," a reference to his beginnings as a grade-school teacher in a poor rural school.

"In truth, at the end of the day, I'm a teacher, and my greatest pride is when people call me 'Teacher,'" Sanchez Ceren said at a ceremony in February where he was given an honorary doctorate by the country's National University.

Sanchez Ceren was one of 12 children born to a carpenter and a food vendor. Once he started working, he quickly became a teachers' union activist, pressing demands for better salaries and working conditions. Given the bloody repression against union leaders in El Salvador in the 1970s, it wasn't a surprise that he also gravitated rapidly toward the rebel movement, then a series of leftist groups allied under the umbrella of the FMLN.

By 1978, Sanchez Ceren headed into the mountains as an armed guerrilla, and by 1983 he became one of the rebels' five top commanders, using the nom-de-guerre "Comandante Leonel Gonzalez." He was seen within the movement as an advocate of dialogue, and he served as a negotiator in the 1992 peace accord that ended the war.

"He is true to his revolutionary principles; he is a stalwart who is a life-long party member, but he is not stuck in the past," said Miguel Montenegro, an official of El Salvador's Human Rights Commission.

However, Sanchez Ceren is likely to face continued resistance from emboldened activists of ARENA, which governed El Salvador for two decades before losing the presidency to Funes in 2009.

Quijano, 67, has said he will dispute the results, alleging fraud, including multiple voting by FLMN backers. And he has been organizing Venezuela-style street protests.