SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador's ruling leftists held a solid lead in a poll released on Wednesday ahead of the February 2 presidential election, but a right-wing challenger still had enough support to force a run-off vote.
A poll by the Universidad Centroamericana showed 46.8 percent of voters would back the ruling Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), whose candidate is former guerilla commander Salvador Sanchez.
The right-wing opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), whose candidate is Norman Quijano, was supported by 32.8 percent. Unidad, another right-wing party, took 14.7 percent.
The poll was carried out in face-to-face interviews of 1,580 voters and has a margin of error of 2.4 percent.
The winning candidate will need more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off election, which would take place on March 9. The poll showed 46.2 percent would vote for the FMLN in a second-round vote while 39.6 percent would back Quijano.
ARENA candidate Quijano had the lead in a poll by private firm Mitofsky released on Monday.
With the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes, the FMLN became the first left-wing party to take power in the poor nation, which is plagued by gang violence. The party was formed from the leftist rebels who fought the government during the country's bloody civil war that ended in 1992 and left some 70,000 dead.
The FMLN is pledging to spend more on social programs and infrastructure, but the government is already struggling with rising debt and weak economic growth.
Wall Street ratings agencies have warned they could further lower the country's debt rating this year. Standard & Poor's said in December that it could cut its rating in the coming year, noting that political gridlock was weighing on growth.
Fitch also has the country on a negative watch following a downgrade last year.
When asked which candidate they preferred, 37.2 percent favored the FMLN's Sanchez, while 30.5 percent preferred the right-wing Quijano and 21.1 percent thought former president and Unidad candidate Antonio Saca was the best option.
Those results compared to the party preference data suggest the ruling party could pick up more votes from Saca supporters in a run-off.
(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Leslie Adler)