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Conservative wins Salvador presidency

Conservative candidate Tony Saca, a former sportscaster, won El Salvador's presidential election on Monday, signaling that the Central American country would move forward on a free-trade proposal with the United States.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former sportscaster Tony Saca easily won El Salvador’s presidential race, promising to continue the direction of one of the most pro-U.S. governments in the hemisphere.

But the former Communist Party guerrilla leader who lost accused Saca of resorting to “lies, fear and blackmail” to win and warned that his party would fight a proposed free-trade agreement with the United States.

With about 73 percent of ballots counted, Saca’s conservative ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, had 57.6 percent of the vote Sunday, easily avoiding a May 2 runoff for the five-year term, which begins June 1.

Schafik Handal of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, had 35.7 percent, and two small parties took the rest.

Fireworks burst across the sky of the capital and cheering Saca supporters drove the streets waving flags in celebration overnight.

Saca sought reconciliation with his vanquished opponents Monday.

Seeking reconciliation
“I am committed to dialogue with other parties to seek solutions,” he said in a televised interview. “No society can develop if it is divided.”

Earlier, he promised to be “a president of all Salvadorans,” said he would name a presidential commission to aid Salvadorans in the United States and vowed to crack down harder on crime.

He endorsed the recently negotiated Central American free-trade agreement with the United States and said he would not restore ties with Cuba. He avoided answering Sunday when asked if he would pull Salvadoran troops out of the Iraq coalition.

A 39-year-old business prodigy, Saca began working at a radio station when he was 13. By 22 he was a nationally known sportscaster who began buying his own stations.

Saca was born just two blocks from Handal in the eastern town of Usulutan to Palestinian immigrants from Bethlehem and in victory, he reached out to his opponents.

“There is no hatred or rancor. This is the moment to forget all the past,” Saca said in declaring victory.

“No society can develop if it is divided,” Saca said.

But the words followed a campaign in which ARENA and a heavily pro-Saca local press portrayed Handal as an unreconstructed communist kidnapper who would stamp out freedom, teach schoolchildren guerrilla warfare and possibly cause the United States to expel Salvadoran refugees.

No handshake from the left
Handal, 73, accepted defeat but pointedly refused to congratulate Saca.

The FMLN holds the largest bloc in the 84-seat legislature, and Handal said that if Saca governed as he campaigned, “with fear and blackmail, the country is going to suffer and we will resist without pause.”

The election was especially hard for the FMLN because it topped ARENA in last year’s municipal and legislative elections.

The 1980-1992 civil war that killed 75,000 people left deep wounds across the nation of 6.5 million, half of whom live in poverty.

Handal led the Communist Party faction in the FMLN coalition, which fought the government until transforming itself into a party with a 1992 peace treaty.

Some 65 percent of eligible voters came to the polls, up from a usual 40 to 45 percent.

Saca’s party has now won four straight elections since 1999. The FMLN has lost three since first participating in 1994, though it runs the biggest city governments and has the largest share of legislative seats.

Outgoing President Francisco Flores has been one of the closest U.S. allies in the hemisphere, adopting the U.S. dollar, sending troops to Iraq and publicly feuding with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Otto Reich, the White House special envoy for the Western Hemisphere, gave a group telephone interview last week to local reporters at Saca’s party headquarters warning about Handal.

“We could not have the same confidence in an El Salvador led by a person who is obviously an admirer of Fidel Castro and of Hugo Chavez,” Reich was quoted as saying, referring to the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela.