SAN SALVADOR — Voters in El Salvador go to the polls Sunday to choose lawmakers for the legislature in a big test for the first leftist government since the end of the civil war 20 years ago.
At stake are how President Mauricio Funes' remaining two years in office will play out. He took power in 2009 in the densely populated Central American nation.
The fairly moderate Funes remains popular but his approval ratings do not necessarily transfer into potential votes for his party, the ex-leftist reebl Farbundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
According to a recent poll, the FMLN -- which governs allied with right-wing dissidents -- scored 27.8 percent.
The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) -- which ruled the country for two decades after the civil war -- had 26.4 percent, in a statistical dead heat, in the poll by the Central American University (UCA).
The FMLN has campaigned promising social programs and job creation in a nation with unemployment among one third of the population and one of the highest murder rates in the world.
ARENA has pledged a tougher tack against crime and youth gangs, or "Maras."
Both main parties "have developed similar propaganda... without explaining how they will deliver on their promises," said Jannet Aguilar, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at the UCA.
A distant third is the Gana grouping, led by ex-president Elias Antonio Saca, with barely 6.3 percent. Saca was expelled from Arena and the party's 14 lawmakers gave a majority to the Funes government in the current Congress.
The FMLN says it plans to build a simple majority with at least two minority parties this time around. The vote is for 84 lawmakers in the one-chamber assembly, as well as 262 mayors nationwide.
Though nine parties are battling for votes, the FMLN and ARENA are by far the lead players. The others are hoping for, at best, political alliances.
"It really is better for no party to be the dominant one. We need for there to be power-sharing n the legislature. That makes it a requiremetn for lawmakers to debate and make deals on major decisions. And that's how a democracy works," said political analyst Antonio Martinez.
There is also a technical heat in the polls for mayors, apart from in the capital, San Salvador, where Arena is expected to hold on to the post.
Current Arena mayor Norman Quijano scored 57.8 percent against 22 percent for FMLN candidate Schafik Handal in the UCA poll.
Unemployment and under-employment have dropped slightly, from 40 to 36 percent, during the Funes administration while young people have continued to emigrate to the United States.
A staggering one in three Salvadorans live in the United States, providing remittances of more than 3.6 billion dollars in 2011, around one sixth of GDP.
Some 4.5 million people are eligible to vote in elections due to open at 7:00 am (1300 GMT) and close at 5:00 pm (2300 GMT) Sunday.
The country is introducing a "residential vote," allowing many voters to cast ballots in their home towns in the hopes of raising participation.
The FMLN was founded by Marxist guerillas fighting a US-backed government in the 1980s. More than 75,000 people were killed during the 1980-1992 civil war.
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