BY NELSON RENTERIA AND ANAHI RAMA
Sun Feb 2, 2014 9:11pm EST
Voters wait in line to cast their votes in the presidential elections at a polling station outside in San Salvador February 2, 2014.
CREDIT: REUTERS/HENRY ROMERO
(Reuters) - A former left-wing guerrilla leader took a strong early lead in El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday, early results showed, but he could still face a run-off against a conservative rival who wants to deploy the army to fight powerful street gangs.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel commander who became a top leader of the now-ruling leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during El Salvador's civil war, had 49.2 percent support with votes in from about 45.4 percent of polling booths.
His right-wing opponent, former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, had 38.9 percent. If no-one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the two leading candidates will go to a run-off on March 9.
Two foreign election officials said they expected the vote to go to a run-off given a closer race in El Salvador's two most populated districts.
The FMLN took power at the last election in 2009 and Sanchez Ceren's campaign was helped by its popular welfare policies, including pensions and free school supplies.
"The Front is going to win because of the poor. They are giving us opportunities. My kids would not have been able to study without their help," said housewife Patricia Concepcion, 43, as voting wrapped up.
Even if he falls short of first-round victory, Sanchez Ceren appears to be in a strong position ahead of the run-off.
The third-place candidate Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 until 2009, had about 11 percent support. But it was not clear whether more of his supporters would back Sanchez Ceren or Quijano in a second round.
After leaving office, Saca broke away from Quijano's Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party.
The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of the civil war in 1992, and Sanchez Ceren has tried to appeal to moderate voters in this campaign as he looks to keep his party in power.
But the tight race reflects a deep divide that dates back to the 12-year war, which killed 75,000 people, and sluggish economic growth has contributed to the surge of violent street gangs.
Quijano is Arena's candidate and has campaigned on a promise of tough policies to crack down on the gangs.
"It is just terrible. You can't even leave your house because there is danger everywhere. It is time to put an end to this," said Sandra Marin, 40, a shoe saleswoman.
Sanchez Ceren rejects the idea of deploying the army to fight the gangs and instead vows to forge a political pact to break through gridlock that has kept a divided Congress from carrying out reforms to tackle crime and weak economic growth.
"More than ever we need a new national accord, so that we do not have partisan policies but policies that are backed by all the people of El Salvador," he said after voting on Sunday.
Sanchez Ceren started out as a rural teacher and rose to become a top rebel leader during the civil war, when the FMLN fought a string of U.S.-backed conservative governments.
He attended a mass early on Sunday at the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated at the start of the civil war. Romero, who denounced oppression of the poor by country's military dictators, is a hero of the left.
The FMLN won power at the last election when it put up a popular journalist, Mauricio Funes, as its candidate. He had no role in the civil war and has led the FMLN toward more moderate leftist policies.
Although many Salvadorans are terrified of the street gangs, a two-year-old truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival, Barrio 18, has helped cut the number of murders in half from one of the highest homicide rates in the world to a 10-year low in 2013.
A victory by the right could disrupt that fragile truce if the military is used to battle the gangs.
Quijano, a 67-year-old former dentist who became San Salvador's mayor, accused the FMLN of making deals with gangs to win votes in areas controlled by the criminal groups.
"Do you want to stay with a government that makes deals with criminals?" Quijano said after he voted in a Roman Catholic school's basketball gym amid supporters waving blue, white and red Salvadoran flags.
"Or do you want a capable person, determined and with a clean record?"
Orlando Sanchez, a 73-year-old bricklayer, believes Arena, which was founded by members who backed death squads during the civil war, would steal public money if it regains power.
"This country is poor because they left it that way," he said as he walked in a park in the capital's historic center.
El Salvador's economy is heavily reliant on money sent home by migrants living and working in the United States.
(Additional reporting by Hugo Sanchez; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray, Eric Walsh and Dan Grebler)