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Salvadoran leftist leads vote, but faces runoff

Updated Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 | 3:06 p.m.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — El Salvador's ruling leftist party appeared to win the presidential vote with nearly all ballots counted by Monday, but candidate Salvador Sanchez of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front probably faces a runoff by narrowly failing to win a simple majority of votes.

The presidential election in Costa Rica also held Sunday was much closer, and that race also appeared headed toward a second round.

El Salvador's electoral tribunal said that with 99.16 percent of the votes counted, Sanchez had just under 49 percent of ballots — short of the 50 percent plus one vote needed for an outright victory. San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, the candidate of the long-governing conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA, had almost 39 percent. Former President Tony Saca, running for an alliance of three conservative parties, got 11 percent.

Sanchez declared victory in the first round and said he wanted to ally with Saca's supporters for the runoff, which would be held March 9.

"We are going to construct understandings and new alliances, and we are going to double the margin in the second round, now it won't be 10 points, it will be double that," Sanchez said.

Quijano said members of the country's violent Mara street gangs tried to stop his supporters from voting by taking away their identification cards, but prosecutors said they had no immediate evidence of such incidents.

Quijano said his party will fight hard in the second round. "Now we are starting a new battle," he said.

Electoral Tribunal Magistrate Fernando Argullo said 53.5 percent of the country's 4.9 million eligible voters turned out, well below the 61 percent turnout in the 2009 presidential election, when the Farabundo Marti party made up of former guerrillas from the civil war won the presidency for the first time.

With 88 percent of ballots counted in Costa Rica, upstart opposition candidate Luis Guillermo Solis had nearly 31 percent of the vote, while ruling party candidate Johnny Araya had just under 30 percent. Costa Rica requires a runoff when no candidate wins at least 40 percent of the votes, and the second round would be held April 6.

Araya's long-governing National Liberation Party has been weighed down by corruption allegations. Araya, who has been mayor of the capital of San Jose since 2003, also needed to overcome discontent over high unemployment during President Laura Chinchilla's government.

Few had expected Solis' center-right Citizen Action Party to even make the second round, in a country where politics have been dominated for three decades by only two parties, National Liberation and the Social Christian Unity party.

University of Costa Rica professor Francisco Barahona said a large number of voters were looking for alternatives to the ruling National Liberation Party.

"With the opinion polls in November, it became clear that 65 percent of voters do not want a third consecutive PLN government," Barahona said.

For Salvadorans, the main issues were a sluggish economy and rampant gang crime in the country of 6 million people.

Under current President Mauricio Funes, leaders of El Salvador's main Mara street gangs declared a truce in several cities that yielded mixed results.

"Homicides have gone down but (the gangs) are still killing; now they hide the victims," said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development. "Extortion has intensified and gangs have solidified their control over territory."

In the last year, police have found mass graves containing the bodies of at least 24 alleged gang victims.

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Associated Press writer Javier Cordoba in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.