With some 75 per cent of votes counted, Arena's presidential candidate, Armando Calderon Sol, had scored 49.26 per cent, which put him ahead of Ruben Zamora, candidate of a left-wing coalition including the FMLN, with 25.59 per cent. The percentages in the elections for the 84-seat National Assembly were similar: 44.78 per cent for Arena and 29.28 per cent for the coalition, with the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) running third at around 16 per cent. Sunday's results of the Assembly vote will be final.
Voters also chose 262 mayors around the country. In the capital, San Salvador, where almost one-third of the country's 5 million people live, the Arena candidate, Mario Valiente, won a clear victory. As expected, the FMLN fared better in the countryside, where the count was slow.
What the local press billed 'the elections of the century' were the first in El Salvador since the 12-year guerrilla war, in which some 75,000 died, ended with a 1992 peace agreement between President Alfredo Cristiani of Arena and the FMLN. The guerrillas handed in their weapons before the end of that year.
The closeness of the result meant that a few thousand, perhaps even a few hundred votes, could make the difference between an immediate outcome and a second round next month. That, in turn, raised the heat during the day, with Mr Calderon Sol coming close to claiming victory as early results showed him over 50 per cent. His supporters took to the streets of the capital, honking car horns and waving flags, until his margin later slipped just below the absolute majority line.
The FMLN, in turn, stepped up its claims of electoral fraud, saying up to 12 per cent of the 2.4 million eligible voters had been denied the right to do so because of 'irregularities'. That mostly meant they had lost birth certificates during the war and had been denied voting credentials.
For the first time in El Salvador's modern history, the Americans present on election day were merely official observers. During the guerrilla war and before, the US had poured billions of dollars into El Salvador, mostly in military aid to stave off the perceived Communist threat in and around the Central American nation. In all, there were close to 3,000 foreign observers.
Mr Zamora has said he hopes to make a deal with the Christian Democrats and others that could swing the second round his way.
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