SAN SALVADOR — Salvadorans on Sunday elected a former TV reporter as the country's first leftist president, unseating a conservative party that ruled for two decades and choosing a government that will be dominated by former guerrillas.
Mauricio Funes, an affable political moderate running on behalf of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, claimed victory after nearly complete returns gave him a lead that experts said was insurmountable.
"This is the happiest night of my life, and I also want it to be the night of greatest hope for El Salvador," an emotional Funes said in a crowded hotel conference room, as cameras flashed and supporters cheered. "Thank you for choosing the path of hope and for overcoming fear."
He called for a spirit of reconciliation and collaboration similar to that which helped end El Salvador's bloody civil war 17 years ago.
With this victory, the FMLN completed its evolution from a coalition of Marxist rebels fighting U.S.-backed regimes in El Salvador's rugged hills to a broad-based party.
Funes, 49, who helped give the FMLN a following beyond its traditional militant base, frequently compared himself to President Obama as an agent of change and promised to maintain good relations with Washington. Instead of the FMLN red, he wore white guayabera shirts and dark business suits as he traversed the nation and pressed his message of national unity.
The Arena party's candidate, Rodrigo Avila, acknowledged defeat Sunday night. Armando Calderon Sol, an Arena leader and former president, told The Times: "It is irreversible. History is written."
FMLN supporters took to the streets in celebration. They filled downtown plazas here in the capital, waving red flags and posters of their candidate and chanting "Mauricio! Mauricio!" -- as well as the old standard, "The left, united, will never be defeated."
Analysts said a leftist win would indicate that voters were more concerned with poverty, unemployment and raging crime than the fear, fanned by the right, that Funes and the FMLN would push El Salvador down a radical communist path.
"The campaign of fear did not work 100% because the desire for change, even among conservatives, was so strong," said Raymundo Calderon, dean of the social studies institute of the University of El Salvador. "We were in such a difficult situation but always supporting the same politics. There's a limit. People decided they had put up with it 20 years and said, 'Enough.' "
U.N.-brokered peace accords ended El Salvador's civil war in 1992. About 75,000 people were killed in 12 years of fighting and atrocities by death squads, some of which were associated with founders of the ruling Arena party. During the war years and since, around a quarter of El Salvador's population -- about 2.5 million people -- fled or was driven to the U.S., with many ending up in Southern California.
Despite widespread disenchantment with the Arena-led government, the party enjoys the backing of major media and big business, and in its closing days the race was too close to call. Avila, Arena's candidate, is a former police commander who repeatedly invoked his Catholic beliefs and warned that a leftist victory would align El Salvador perilously with Cuba and Venezuela.
About 60% of the electorate cast ballots. Walking, riding in dark-windowed SUVs or piled in the backs of pickup trucks, Salvadorans surged to polling stations. Buses festooned with the flags of one party or another clogged streets.
Thousands of Salvadorans returned to their homeland from the United States to vote, including Tere Torres and her two adult sons, who flew into town Saturday from Los Angeles and were up at dawn to head to the fairgrounds to vote.
"It was worth making the trip so that we don't forget why people like us left in the first place," said William Torres, 24, a graphic designer in Los Angeles. "The economic situation is really bad and people need to know they have opportunity based not just on privilege and what party you belong to."
His mother, who left El Salvador while the war raged and now cleans houses in Culver City, said the election was too important to skip. "It could be that the change we wanted for so long is possible this time," she said.
El Salvador remains divided by great social and economic inequity, with a vast underclass struggling to afford food and medicine.
But the idea of dramatic change is exactly what scared some voters.
"What do we need a revolution for?" asked Alex Aviles, 18, a first-time voter and law student, dressed in a red, white and blue Arena T-shirt. "People don't have money because they don't work."