Police and soldiers were deployed across the Central American country to provide security for the elections, the ninth since a 1992 peace accord ended a bloody 12-year civil war.
About 5.1 million voters were eligible to take part in the vote, but turnout appeared low — something an electoral official described as “normal” for legislative and municipal polls, for which turnout has never topped 50 percent.
The first results were expected a few hours after the polls closed, but Sanchez Ceren had warned earlier in the day that an announcement of the final outcome could take time.
“The process is a bit complicated. And results are not going to be immediate. We’ll just have to wait a bit,” the president said.
At stake are all 84 seats in the single-chamber Congress and mayoralties and council seats in the tiny country’s 262 municipalities.
The main parties that took part in the elections were the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement (FMLN), and the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), a conservative opposition party that is favored to make gains.
The two parties were deadly opponents during the civil war, with guerrilla groups under the banner of the FMLN fighting against a succession of US-backed governments. ARENA, for its part, was co-founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a soldier linked to right-wing death squads.
– ‘Future at stake’ –
The elections will give a measure of Sanchez Ceren’s strength at a time when the country has been battered by violent crime.
“There are many deputies who are up for re-election who have done nothing for the country. That’s why you have to think hard (about who to vote for). Our future is at stake,” said Idalia Hernandez, a university student.
After a three-month campaign, the faces of the candidates were everywhere, their pictures hanging from light posts in towns throughout the country.
The new elected officials will take up their positions on May 1.
In the current Congress, ARENA has a slight majority, with 35 seats to the FMLN’s 31. Three other parties hold 18 seats.
That has forced Sanchez Ceren to negotiate to get legislation passed.
He has succeeded in getting the Congress to fund certain popular social programs like free lunches and school supplies for public school students.
But ARENA has blocked borrowing sought by the government for public works programs, and forced cuts in spending in the 2018 budget.
– Final stretch –
Analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez said the government functions because it has “the maturity to negotiate, to dialogue and not to try to impose its will on a sometimes capricious opposition.”
“The government is in the final stretch. So if it wants to finish well, it must be agile and dialogue not only with the legislative assembly but with the other forces in society,” he said.
Sanchez Ceren needs the support of the legislature as he finishes his presidency to put through laws aimed at getting crime under control.
El Salvador’s murder rate in 2017 was one of the highest in the world at 60 homicides per 100,000 people.
And although that is an improvement over 2015, when the murder rate spiked to 103 per 100,000 people, El Salvador is still one of the world’s most violent countries, in large part due to the presence of the feared MS-13 and Barrio 18 transnational gangs.