Salvadoran front-runner seeks to end corruption, violence

Published 02-04-2019

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) - A former mayor of El Salvador's capital took a strong lead in early returns from Sunday's presidential election, standing 20 points ahead of his nearest rival as he sought to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central America nation.

The Supreme Electoral Court said that with just over two-thirds of the ballots counted, Nayib Bukele had 52.9 percent of the votes. Carlos Callejas of the Nationalist Republican Alliance was in second with 32.3 percent, while even farther back were former Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and a minor party candidate.

Bukele needed 50 percent of the votes to avoid a March runoff.

All four candidates promised to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs, with crushing crime at the top of the agenda. Roughly 67,000 Salvadorans belong to gangs that terrorize their communities with extortion, murder and other forms of violence.

The candidates have proposed creating economic opportunities and restoring social values to dissuade Salvadorans from engaging in criminal behavior.

Turnout appeared to be heavy in early voting, with no reports of major problems.

Bukele, 37, made his political debut in 2012 as a small-town mayor with the now-ruling FMLN and won election in the capital three years later, automatically making him a potential presidential contender. But his frequent criticism of the leftist party's leadership led to his expulsion, and he wound up as the unlikely standard-bearer of a small conservative party known as the Grand Alliance for National Unity, whose initials - GANA - mean "win" in Spanish.

Bukele took to social media Sunday to urge Salvadorans to vote. "Let's save our country a second run" at the polls, he said. Speaking to reporters after casting his own vote, he lashed out against his opponents' political parties, calling them "corrupt."

The FMLN and the conservative Alliance, known as ARENA, have dominated Salvadoran politics since a 1992 peace deal that ended a brutal civil war. But both parties have been stained by corruption scandals and neither has been able to stem gang violence.

"I came to vote because I wan

Bukele, 37, made his political debut in 2012 as a small-town mayor with the now-ruling FMLN and won election in the capital three years later, automatically making him a potential presidential contender. But his frequent criticism of the leftist party's leadership led to his expulsion, and he wound up as the unlikely standard-bearer of a small conservative party known as the Grand Alliance for National Unity, whose initials - GANA - mean "win" in Spanish.

Bukele took to social media Sunday to urge Salvadorans to vote. "Let's save our country a second run" at the polls, he said. Speaking to reporters after casting his own vote, he lashed out against his opponents' political parties, calling them "corrupt."

The FMLN and the conservative Alliance, known as ARENA, have dominated Salvadoran politics since a 1992 peace deal that ended a brutal civil war. But both parties have been stained by corruption scandals and neither has been able to stem gang violence.

"I came to vote because I want the country to change, because we are tired of so much corruption," said Estela Henriquez, 27, at a polling place in the capital.

More than 4,500 election observers, including representatives of the Organization of American States and the European Union, were on hand.

El Salvador is small both in size and population, with just 6.5 million people. Close to a third of its households live in poverty, while the World Bank says per capita income is $3,560.

Salvadorans searching for a better life have joined recent caravans of migrants trekking through Mexico toward the U.S.

The FMLN and the conservative Alliance, known as ARENA, have dominated Salvadoran politics since a 1992 peace deal that ended a brutal civil war. But both parties have been stained by corruption scandals and neither has been able to stem gang violence.

"I came to vote because I want the country to change, because we are tired of so much corruption," said Estela Henriquez, 27, at a polling place in the capital.

More than 4,500 election observers, including representatives of the Organization of American States and the European Union, were on hand.

El Salvador is small both in size and population, with just 6.5 million people. Close to a third of its households live in poverty, while the World Bank says per capita income is $3,560.

Salvadorans searching for a better life have joined recent caravans of migrants trekking through Mexico toward the U.S.

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Supporters of the Grand National Alliance for Unity cheer for their presidential candidate Nayib Bukele in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 3, 2019. Bukele, a former mayor of El Salvador's capital, was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Polling officials count ballots shortly after voting ended during presidential election in San Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Nayib Bukele, a former mayor of El Salvador's capital, was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press


Presidential hopeful Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela gesture at a polling station as they are surrounded by the press while voting in the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. The former mayor of El Salvador's capital was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


An election volunteer helps a woman in a wheelchair reach her voting table during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press


A man casts his vote during the presidential election at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Nun Zoila Hernandez shows her fingers to electoral authorities prior to voting during the presidential election at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Presidential hopeful Nayib Bukele waves as he leaves a polling station after casting his vote in the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. The former mayor of El Salvador's capital was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


A man casts his vote during the presidential election at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Presidential candidate for the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista party (ARENA), Carlos Calleja, and his wife Andrea give a thumbs up to the press, showing their thumbs are inked which means they voted, during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press


A voter searches for his name on voter lists at a polling station during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press


A man receives his ballot during the presidential election at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


A National Police agent casts his vote during the presidential election at a polling station in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Presidential hopeful Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela greet supporters at a polling station where they are voting during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. The former mayor of El Salvador's capital was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) - The Associated Press


Presidential hopeful Nayib Bukele is surrounded by the press at a polling station during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. The former mayor of El Salvador's capital was making a strong run Sunday to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press


Presidential candidate for the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista party (ARENA), Carlos Calleja, is surrounded by the press as he arrives to vote at a polling center during the presidential election in San Salvador, El Salvador, Feb. 3, 2019. Salvadorans are choosing from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs in the Central American nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez) - The Associated Press