Salvadoran front-runner seeks to end decades of 2-party rule

Salvadorans choose form a slate of candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out rising violence and create more jobs

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Salvadorans will choose Sunday from among a handful of presidential candidates all promising to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs with the front-runner hoping to end three decades of two-party rule in the country.

The Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies, a think tank based in Guatemala, found great similarities in the four candidates' proposals. Top of the agenda is public safety: roughly 67,000 Salvadorans belong to gangs that terrorize their communities via extorsion, murder and other forms of violence. The candidates have touched on ways to generate economic opportunities and restore social values to dissuade Salvadorans from engaging in criminal behavior.

Leading in the polls is Nayib Bukele, the former mayor of the capital, San Salvador. Bukele has campaigned on promises to create a commission to tackle impunity and corruption. He also proposes taxing property and idle agricultural land, levying higher taxes on luxury goods and combating tax evasion.

An election of Bukele, 37, would put an end to decades of two-party rule in El Salvador.

Bukele made his political debut in 2012 with the ruling FMLN party, which arose from a leftist guerrilla movement after peace accords ended El Salvador's civil war. Today he is the standard bearer of the Grand Alliance for National Unity — its initials, GANA, mean "win" in Spanish — and he's challenging the political dominance that has reigned since the 1992 peace accords.

A recent poll gave Bukele support from about 40 percent of Salvadorans, compared with 23 percent for businessman Carlos Callejas of the conservative Arena coalition. He was even further ahead of the FMLN's Hugo Martinez, a former foreign minister.

More than 4,500 election observers, including representatives of the Organization of American States and the European Union, will be on hand when Salvadorans go to the polls.

If none of the contenders clinch more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getting will compete in a second round runoff in March.

The country is small both in size and population, with just 6.5 million inhabitants. Close to a third of households live in poverty, while the World Bank says per capita income is $3,560. Salvadorans searching for a better life have joined recent caravans of migrants trekking through Mexico toward the U.S.