SAN SALVADOR AND MEXICO CITY — Salvadorans voted Sunday in elections that many believe will set the stage for the country's left wing to come to power for the first time -- a milestone in a nation still polarized after a civil war that ended nearly two decades ago.
Most preelection surveys gave the overall advantage to leftist candidates in races to choose 84 legislators and 262 mayors. However, early returns indicated that the left would lose the major prize, the mayoralty it has held in San Salvador, the capital.
A big showing by the left now would stoke momentum for a widely expected victory by El Salvador's former guerrilla movement in presidential elections in March.
That victory would represent a remarkable transformation by this country, where leftist rebels fought a U.S.-backed right-wing government throughout the Cold War 1980s. And it would link El Salvador to a shift across Latin America toward the political left.
"El Salvador needs a change," Ester Borja, a 42-year-old widowed housekeeper, said Sunday after casting her ballot at a school in the capital's San Jacinto neighborhood. "We've had 20 years of the same old thing, 20 years of living in poverty and we want something new."
Salvadorans make up the second-largest Latino immigrant group in Southern California, after Mexicans. Many fled there during the decade-long civil war that claimed about 75,000 lives and wiped out much anti-right dissent.
A U.N.-brokered peace agreement ended the war in January 1992, after the two sides fought to a stalemate. The right-wing Arena party, some of whose members were associated with vicious death squads that killed priests and union leaders, won elections in 1989 and has retained the presidency since.
But Salvadorans now are preparing for a historic political change -- and the violence that such transformation could bring from a rejected elite or a suspicious military. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, the former guerrilla coalition that became a political party after the war, led polls for many of Sunday's races, and it holds a double-digit lead in the upcoming presidential vote.
Two FMLN activists, a father and son, were killed this month by heavily armed men in the eastern state of Morazan. But political violence overall has remained at a low level.
Although FMLN politicians already hold some legislative and city government seats, this would be the first time that the opposition has won a national election since Jose Napoleon Duarte of the centrist Christian Democratic Party defeated Arena in 1984. His government, in the end, changed little and went on to do the bidding of the right wing and the Reagan administration in fighting the guerrillas and much of the leftist opposition.
"Change makes the status quo nervous," said Salvadoran political analyst Leonel Gomez. "This time the expectations are much higher that the change could be very deep. That represents hope for the opposition but danger for the status quo."
Much of the popularity of the FMLN has little to do with ideology and is more a matter of disaffection with the party that has ruled for two decades as the country plunged further into poverty and became awash in crime. Hardly a neighborhood is immune to violent gangs, many exported from Los Angeles, who kill, rape, rob and deal drugs.
"We are really beaten down," said gasoline station worker Jose Rodrigo Sanchez, 40. "I am not and never have been with the left or the right. But the country is in trouble and it's time to give the FMLN a chance."
Juan Marcos Rodriguez, 29, disagreed.
"It is not that I'm afraid of communism -- communism no longer exists," Rodriguez, a businessman, said after voting. "But I do have a certain fear of the changes the FMLN would bring. It is unclear what [an FMLN victory] would mean and that creates a bit of uncertainty."
Sunday's voting took place peacefully and with few incidents. Security was tight as voters sporting a smattering of Che Guevara images, along with their party colors -- red for the left; red, white and blue for Arena -- moved through neighborhoods where lines were long at balloting stations.
The key competition Sunday was for the mayoralty of the capital. Incumbent Violeta Menjivar of the FMLN was in a tight race with challenger Norman Quijano of Arena. Election officials said Quijano appeared to be winning, which would be a blow to the left's aspirations.
The FMLN has benefited from the popularity of its presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, an affable former television journalist and latecomer to the party. Analysts said many of the candidates in Sunday's races were in effect riding on Funes' coattails.
Funes has sought to allay fears, frequently raised by Arena politicians and government officials, that he would push El Salvador to the radical left and convert it into a satellite of Venezuela or Cuba.
Alexander Sanchez, a Salvadoran truck driver who has lived in Los Angeles for the last 28 years, traveled to his homeland just to vote Sunday -- for the FMLN -- and he said he plans to come back for the March presidential election.
"Today is just the first step," Sanchez said.
"We will see the big change on March 15."