El Salvador and Costa Rica headed for runoffs

Economic disparity, corruption and crime weighed on voters_ minds in both countries, but they disagreed, at lea...

Economic disparity, corruption and crime weighed on voters_ minds in both countries, but they disagreed, at least for now, on throwing out the incumbent party, with El Salvador voters leaning toward keeping it, and Costa Rica hinting at tossing it out.

In El Salvador, a divided right may have benefited the front-runner of the left-leaning Farabundo Mart__ National Liberation Front, known as the F.M.L.N., which appeared in good position to hold on to the presidency. It won the office for the first time in 2009, after a string of losses to conservatives following peace accords in 1992 ended one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Americas.

The F.M.L.N. candidate, Salvador S__nchez Cer__n, a former guerrilla commander and the vice president, got 49 percent of the vote, but not the majority needed to avoid a March 9 runoff, according to preliminary results.

Though Mr. S__nchez_s past stirred concern among American conservatives, analysts said he represented a more politically mature F.M.L.N., which has lately eschewed radical talk and candidates in favor of politically popular social welfare programs and moderate appeals to bridge a still divided country.

_Both the left and right took pains publicly not to remind people of their ideology,_ said Cynthia J. Arnson, director the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington. _Both moved a little to the center in their rhetoric._

Mr. S__nchez will most likely face off against Norman Quijano, a former mayor of San Salvador and the candidate of the right-leaning Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, who was in second place in the early results with 39 percent of the vote. He had campaigned on a promise to continue the F.M.L.N._s popular social programs while opening the country to more business and cracking down on gang crime, with the military if necessary.

He has been critical of a fragile truce announced in 2012 among two major gangs and negotiated with the help of a government security minister. It has been credited for a substantial drop in the homicide rate, but rising disappearances and the discovery of a mass grave in December have led skeptics to wonder if the gangs are hiding their victims.

The final outcome may depend in part on who collects the votes given to a third candidate, Antonio Saca, a former president who received 11 percent in the first round.

Both Mr. S__nchez and Mr. Quijano said Monday that they would vie for Mr. Saca_s voters and made conciliatory comments toward him, though Mr. Saca, who was expelled from Arena in 2009 over internal conflicts, did not indicate whether he would endorse another candidate.

In Costa Rica, Johnny Araya _ a former mayor of San Jos__, the capital, and the candidate of the incumbent, centrist National Liberation Party _ was narrowly trailing Luis Guillermo Sol__s, a former Foreign Ministry official and political newcomer representing the progressive Citizens Action Party. They will likely meet in an April 6 runoff.

This development was something of a surprise because Mr. Sol__s had not been at the top of pre-election polls, but analysts had said the election was hard to predict because there were 13 candidates and the electorate seemed disaffected with parties and the course of the country.

Voters were angry about unemployment, crime and corruption scandals that have put the approval ratings of President Laura Chinchilla, who could not run again because of term limits, among the lowest in Latin America.

_Costa Rica was a triumph of outsider politics,_ Ms. Arnson said. _Sol__s is by no means unknown. But he is widely respected, and his slogans against corruption and for good, honest government resonated in a way the traditional parties could not capture._

Mr. Sol__s garnered 31 percent of the vote, to Mr. Araya_s 30 percent. Jos__ Mar__a Villalta, a young left-leaning lawmaker whose surge in pre-election polls put him in the spotlight, ended up with 17 percent.

Mr. Araya sought to distance himself from the Chinchilla administration and said he would be best suited to tackling the public debt, including, if necessary, by imposing new taxes.

Mr. Sol__s campaigned largely on fighting corruption and shoring up the government social security system, and he promised to reach out to civil society, not just the other parties, for support.

_I am not just talking about alliances with parties, because the people want dialogue. We parties are a limited expression of society,_ Mr. Sol__s told a news conference, according to the newspaper La Naci__n.

Yhe New York Times | By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD

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