SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A former Marxist guerrilla leader is expected to win El Salvador's presidency on Sunday after promising to expand social programs for the poor and fending off his opponent's claims that he will impose radical policies.
Recent polls showed Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the rebel group in the country's 1980-92 civil war, with about 55 percent support heading into the second round run-off vote on Sunday.
One of the wartime leaders of the FMLN, Sanchez Ceren faces conservative rival Norman Quijano, the former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, who trailed in polls with about 45 percent support as voting got under way.
A Sanchez Ceren win would give the FMLN a second consecutive term and the affable, media-shy 69-year-old has vowed to build on its social programs, which include a glass of milk a day for children and free school uniforms, shoes and supplies.
Quijano has tried to paint Sanchez Ceren as a communist radical with blood on his hands, but in a country where a third of people live in poverty and many rely on money sent home from relatives living in the United States, the FMLN's social programs are popular.
Speaking after voting in an open air theatre as supporters in red waved flags reading "President Salvador", Sanchez Ceren said Quijano should not hesitate to recognize the FMLN's victory but that his arms were open for them to work together.
"The country needs all forces to unite," he said. "We are going to continue to build opportunities for the poorest."
The FMLN has gained ground in the last decade, winning mayorships across the coffee-producing nation in areas that were once bastions of El Salvador's right.
It took the presidency in 2009 when Mauricio Funes, a prominent journalist who had no role in the war, ran as its candidate. Under the FMLN, the government says the poverty rate has fallen from 40 percent to 29 percent.
In the first round of voting last month, Sanchez Ceren won 49 percent of votes, just shy of the margin needed for victory.
"I hope Salvador wins because of the help we've had with school supplies, the gas subsidy. They've helped with the school packages, because I've got two kids, let's hope these programs go on another five years," said Daisy Guerrero, 23, as she arrived to vote at the country's biggest voting station.
Quijano, the candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party, had 39 percent support and has since tried to appeal to centrists by quietly dropping a campaign proposal to use the army to fight street gangs.
Casting his vote in a private school in a wealthy part of the capital, Quijano told reporters he would be the one calling for dialogue after the elections, because Arena would win.
"We need to put our differences aside, one can't govern without the help of another party," he said.
Still, as Quijano voted, dozens of his supporters sang Arena's hymn pledging defeat for the "reds" and its shout of "Patria Si, Comunismo No!" (Fatherland yes, Communism, No!).
El Salvador has remained a polarized society since the war, in which the FMLN fought a series of U.S.-backed right-wing governments. The conflict killed about 75,000 people and left many with a deep distrust of the former rebels.
The FMLN has steadily won over supporters by moderating its policies but it has still struggled to push economic reforms through a divided Congress and overcome years of sluggish growth that has fuelled the rise of violent street gangs.
Today, the wealthy live in gated communities and shop in lavish malls filled with U.S. chain stores under the watch of armed guards. The poor, meanwhile, struggle in neighbourhoods of cinderblock homes controlled by the country's violent gangs.
Tapping into middle-class fears, Quijano has warned that Sanchez Ceren would bow to the influence of Venezuela, where the socialist government has taken over private companies.
"I'm worried about my job. I feel my job is at risk," said Cecilia Morales, a 35-year-old mother of three who works at a milk processing plant in the capital whose owners are linked to the political right. "They could take over their businesses."
Sanchez Ceren has said he will join Venezuela's Petrocaribe oil bloc, which provides subsidized fuel to allies of Caracas. But he says he is forging his own model and has courted the support of conservatives who have broken with Arena.
In the port of La Libertad, fishermen sell red snapper and lobsters in a market on the boardwalk that was renovated by an FMLN mayor who has tried to make a tourist attraction out of the fishing town. Donaldo Albarengue, a 49-year-old fishmonger, said the FMLN deserved a chance at another five years.
"The gentlemen from Arena had 20 years, and we never saw what they promised," Albarengue said.
(Additional reporting by Noe Torres, writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Dave Graham, Kieran Murray, Lisa Shumaker and Meredith Mazzilli)