Power beckons for El Salvador guerrillas who bit the bullet on violence

Communist revolutionaries who fought a 13-year civil war are poised to win election

In 1979, five Communist leaders from El Salvador flew in secret to Fidel Castro's Cuba, where they sat down in olive combat fatigues to negotiate the formation of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a paramilitary organisation dedicated to overthrowing the military junta in their homeland.

Little did the idealistic rebels realise, as they smoked cigars and performed perfunctory salutes, that they were pushing the button on a bloody civil war that would last 13 years, kill 75,000, including 35,000 civilians, and spawn a succession of atrocities, on both sides, that were unprecedented even by the standards of Latin America's murderous history.

Today, watching members of the same FMLN, which has now renounced the gun and become El Salvador's second biggest political party, gather beneath a tattered portrait of Che Guevara in the party's regional headquarters in the small town of Usulutan, two hours' drive east of San Salvador, you could be forgiven for wondering if the Cold War ever actually ended.

They wear red T-shirts and call each other "comrade". Some discuss land reform; others talk re-distribution of wealth. Many sport "Che Vive!" bracelets and Guevara-style berets. Most members of the party's regional council are veterans of the armed struggle who can still, if they so desire, insist on being addressed as "Commandant".

Yet these radicals are on the brink of power. Next month El Salvador goes to the polls to elect a new parliament. Two months later, it will elect a new president. Every indication is that El Frente (the Front), as the FMLN is widely known, will achieve the first victory in its history, propelling its charismatic candidate Mauricio Funes, a 49-year-old television presenter, into the presidential palace in San Salvador.

Recent polls put Mr Funes between 6 and 15 points clear of his rival Rodrigo Avila, an uninspiring former police chief representing the Arena party. Voters seem hungry for change, and after two decades of economic liberalisation, are swinging en masse behind Mr Funes.

On the face of it, an FMLN victory would represent the stuff of nightmares for the US: it would be yet another socialist triumph in a region that has in recent years seen the election of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

But Mauricio Funes doesn't sit neatly in the category of left-wing firebrand. A Hispanic version of David Frost, he hosts a long-running morning chat show, and came to politics after growing increasingly critical of Arena, a party that was formed by army generals during the civil war, and has been in power since El Salvador's peace accords were signed in 1992. Mr Funes only joined the FMLN a few months ago, just before his presidential bid was announced. He preaches pragmatic democracy and responsible capitalism, and stands out at the party's campaign rallies like a sore thumb, in a well-cut suit and tie that provides a stark contrast to the Soviet-era combat uniforms that every other FMLN leader in history has chosen.

Crucially, unlike all of his predecessors, the Funes CV is untarnished by Communism. He never fought in the guerrilla war, but instead styles himself a creature of the centre-left with an Obama-style campaign slogan: "Nace la Esperanza, Viene el Cambio!" (Hope is born. Change is coming!)

El Salvador certainly needs change. A small, but crowded nation, it feels hopelessly divided. The capital, full of neon lights and small skyscrapers, resembles any other prosperous city where international corporations employ a growing middle class. But a short drive into the country, most rural communities are hopelessly impoverished, with millions living in mud shacks, down potholed dirt tracks, on a few dollars a day.

Mr Funes can take the rural poor's support for granted, but he is hoping to ride to power on the coat-tails of El Salvador's middle class. By pulling the FMLN subtly rightwards, and toning down the communist rhetoric, he seems to be succeeding.

Today, the party's distinctive red flag dominates the skyline above gritty urban barrios and rural towns, just as it always has done. But it also flutters in prosperous districts of San Salvador, where affluent professionals have been comforted by Mr Funes's promise to heal social divides that have led to rampant crime.

Aristides Valencia, the FMLN's regional leader in Usulutan, sums up the party's potential divide well. A former guerrilla leader, he has reluctantly decided to swap military fatigues for chinos and T-shirts for the duration of the campaign. But his rhetoric harks back to the old era. He explains that his priorities, should he be elected to office next month, as making sure that a constitutional amendment saying that no Salvadoran may own more than 245 hectares of land is rigidly enforced.

He promises to make sure that local peasant farmers, who produce the coffee and sugar that (aside from manual labour) make up the nation's biggest exports, are allowed to register legal claims to ownership of the fields where they work.

"The armed struggle is in the past, though," he adds. "The concept of Communism versus socialism, versus capitalism, belongs to another era. In a real democracy, in the democracy we are fighting to create, many points of view can be held together. People change, parties change."

El Salvador: Facts and figures

*One of Central America's smallest and most densely populated countries, with close to 7 million inhabitants, although 2 million Salvadorans live abroad.

*El Salvador's rich, volcanic soil is highly fertile, but a few rich landowners control a peasant population.

*The civil war, which ended in 1992, killed 70,000 people. Many citizens fled to the US.

*The capital, San Salvador, is infamous for its gang violence, with one of the highest murder rates in the world. The two major gangs are Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha.

*El Salvador lies on a geological faultline which makes it vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic activity. An earthquake in 2001 caused landslides, killing more than 800 people and damaging 130,000 homes.

*El Salvador, Spanish for "the saviour", dropped its own currency, the colon, in 2001 for the US dollar.