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Businessman Wins Salvadoran Presidency

The ruling right-wing party hangs on to power as voters turn out in droves. The U.S. had feared a victory by a former guerrilla group.

March 22, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Elias Antonio Saca, a youthful sportscaster turned businessman making his first run for public office, won El Salvador's presidential election Sunday after a vitriolic campaign between his ruling right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance and the former guerrilla group it tried to destroy in the country's civil war.

Election officials said a count of more than two-thirds of the ballots gave the 39-year-old entrepreneur 58% of the vote and an insurmountable lead over Schafik Handal, a former Communist guerrilla leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, now the leftist political party he was representing. Handal polled 35%.

Handal, 73, was making the most spirited challenge to the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, since it came to power in 1989 -- three years before a peace accord ended more than a decade of fighting that had claimed 75,000 lives.

In a belligerent end to an unusually bitter race, the gray-bearded Handal accused the winner of scaring voters with a scenario that a leftist victory would provoke new conflicts.

"I recognize his victory, but I do not congratulate him, because

The race confronted Salvadorans with perhaps their starkest choice of presidential candidates ever, and they jammed the tiny Central American country's polling stations. Turnout was 65%, a postwar record.

Invoking a martyr of the war, Handal attended an election day memorial service for Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose assassination 24 years ago was blamed on Arena founder Roberto D'Aubuisson by a postwar Truth Commission. Handal said thousands "are dedicating their vote to Monsignor Romero."

Saca, in his victory speech, said it was time to forget the war and the election campaign.

"Salvadorans have elected me to administer the future, not to revive the past," he declared. "There is no hatred or rancor. There is a president-elect with a desire to talk to everyone. Let's all work for the country."

The Bush administration had watched the voting closely, openly voicing unease over Handal. An admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro, he ran on a pledge to reopen negotiations on a recent free-trade agreement with the United States and withdraw El Salvador's 380 troops from Iraq.

Conservative governments led by Arena -- a party of entrepreneurs and landowning "oligarchs" -- have made this nation of 6 million a model for Washington's prescriptions of free trade and privatization while overseeing a postwar restoration of free expression and respect for human rights. The country has rebounded faster from war than its Central American neighbors and in 2001 adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans have received U.S. work visas and sent $2.1 billion to their families last year.

Saca pledged to continue those policies, saying the country "is immeasurably better off than it was 20 or 15 years ago." He appealed to women voters by naming economist Ana Vilma de Escobar as his running mate. She will become the country's first female vice president.

Handal tried to capitalize on discontent over slow economic growth in the last four years, low world prices for El Salvador's exported coffee, rampant crime, and a growing income gap between millions of poor and the country's tiny elite. He pledged to revive the Salvadoran currency and raise the tax burden on the rich.

But a majority of voters were uneasy with Handal's uncompromising style, Marxist rhetoric and throwback ideas.

"I do not want a Communist country, where they ration beans and corn like they did in Nicaragua," said Analian Lemos, 32, a businesswoman.

The two candidates were born one generation and two blocks apart in the eastern city of Usulutan, both to Palestinian families that migrated from Bethlehem. From there they took radically different paths.

Handal lived much of his life in hiding or exile because of his guerrilla activities. He served as the FMLN's top diplomat during the war.

Saca's career as a young sports announcer moved from radio to television. He became owner of a radio network and led the national industrialists' chamber before Arena tapped him as its candidate.

In campaign ads aimed at distinguishing him from both Handal and Arena's wartime figures, Saca displayed his palms and asserted, "My hands are clean."

The FMLN mocked that ad, airing a commercial that questioned Saca's tax returns and called him a "crook."

The Bush administration weighed in with its own qualms about the possibility of an FMLN government.

Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said during a recent visit here that Salvadorans should consider "what kind of relationships a new government would have with us." Last week, three Republican congressmen threatened to block the renewal of annual U.S. work visas for Salvadorans if the country elected a leftist government.

Arena's leaders played up the news, warning that the U.S. could also prevent Salvadoran immigrants from sending money home. Although U.S. officials here said no such consequences were likely, the threat was on the minds of many voters.

"I have five uncles in Los Angeles, and they are very worried," said Zenaida Perez, a 32-year-old teacher. "We cannot afford to lose our good relations with the United States, because we depend on the money our families send from there."

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