Polls opened Sunday in El Salvador’s presidential elections amid heavy security as voters look for change in a country beset by gang violence and widespread poverty.
Nayib Bukele, the 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, is the frontrunner in a race that could upend the nearly three decade old grip of the country’s two largest parties on Salvadoran politics.
Rigorous security was in place as polling stations opened at 7am (1300 GMT). Some 5.2 million people are elegible to vote at the more than 1,500 election centers.
Some 23,000 police officers and 15,000 soldiers have been deployed to protect the sixth presidential election since democracy was restored in the country in 1992 after 12 years of bloody civil war between state security forces and leftist guerrillas.
Should Bukele, who represents the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, win it would put to an end three decades of domination by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN).
His main challenge is expected to come from 42-year-old supermarket magnate Carlos Calleja, representing ARENA.
If he does win, though, he will have to form an alliance with the right, which dominates congress.
He has promised to increase investment in education and fight corruption but his main task will be to implement new programs to confront insecurity.
El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens.
It has been battered by gang violence, which authorities say were the source of most of the 3,340 murders reported last year.
Gangs are said to have 70,000 members, 17,000 of whom are behind bars.
– ‘Daring security solutions’ –
"The new president must offer daring security solutions," Carlos Carcach, an analyst and professor at the Higher School of Economy and Business in El Salvador, told AFP.
Another challenge will be to reduce illegal immigration to the United States given President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off aid if the stream of Central American migrants heading there is not stopped.
During the last few months of 2018, more than 3,000 Salvadorans joined caravans marching towards the US, fleeing gangs and a lack of employment.
"You think and rethink about whether or not it’s worth staying in this country or have the courage to go and try your luck in another," Sergio Hernandez, a 41-year-old carpenter told AFP.
"It’s terrible with the gangs, someone has to do something because it’s unbearable."
The other main worry for Salvadorans is the economy. Although it grew by 2.6 percent in 2018, its biggest rise in five years, that is considered insufficient to cover the demand for new employment.
The election winner will have to juggle the need to raise taxes to cover an external debt of more than $9.5 billion while trying to maintain social programs in a country where the minimum wage of $300 a month is barely enough to buy food.
"The challenge for the new leader is to satisfy the demand for fairer salaries and avoid the social exclusion that forces many to flee the country," said Raul Moreno, an economics professor at the state university.
Just over 30% of El Salvador’s 6.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.