Former rebels in El Salvador hope to win power 17 years after civil war

El Salvador's former guerrillas are poised to take over the country, 17 years after peace accords ended the country's bloody civil war.

New face of FMLN is a TV journalist with widespread appeal

El Salvador's former guerrillas seem poised to take over the country, 17 years after peace accords ended the country's bloody civil war.

But this revolution is a democratic one, led by a charismatic TV journalist named Mauricio Funes who has brought new hope to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a guerrilla group that turned into a political party.

Polls ahead of Sunday's six-party election indicate the Front, known as the FMLN, will increase its 32-seat plurality in the 84-member legislature while winning the capital and most of the 262 mayors' races up for grabs.

Sunday's key race in the capital pits former guerrilla Violeta Menjivar against physician Norman Quijano of the conservative, governing Arena party.

Voters, many wearing party colours, began lining up early, though polls opened as much as an hour late in some areas.

But the true test will come March 15, when Funes is favoured to become the first FMLN president since El Salvador's 1992 peace accords ended a civil war that killed 75,000 people.

Surveys suggest lead

Most polls give him a lead of at least nine points over his opponent, ruling-party candidate Rodrigo Avila.

The FMLN has struggled to win over Salvadorans politically in the past 17 years. While the party won a plurality in the legislature in the last two elections, it has never completely overcome its rebel image — partly because its hard-left faction pushed aside party moderates when choosing candidates in past elections.

Arena, which has controlled the presidency since 1989, has flooded radio and television with ads trying to discredit Funes and the FMLN as radicals.

"They are trying to scare people, but people aren't scared of the FMLN anymore. They are afraid of the conservatives, at least that's what the polls say," said Dagoberto Gutierrez, an expert at the El Salvador's Lutheran University.

High gasoline prices and soaring food costs took a toll on President Tony Saca's approval ratings and soured voters on Arena.

Funes, a new addition to the FMLN, won over the public as a respected journalist.