By Nelson Renteria and Michael O'Boyle
SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A former guerrilla commander vies to keep his left-wing party in power in El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday, but he faces a strong challenge from a right-leaning rival who wants to use the army to battle powerful street gangs.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel commander who became a top leader of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), had a solid lead over his conservative adversary Norman Quijano, who stepped down as the capital's mayor to run.
But with three main candidates competing, Sanchez Ceren was projected to fall short of the 50 percent support needed to win outright and so face Quijano in a run-off on March 9.
Sanchez Ceren is promising to extend social programs to fight deeply entrenched poverty that fed the growth of gangs.
"We know that living in peace is the greatest aspiration of the people of El Salvador - safety and peace - and that they want jobs," Sanchez Ceren, 69, said at a final campaign rally.
Sanchez Ceren, who started out as a rural teacher, rose to be a top rebel leader by the end of the 1980-1992 civil war, when the FMLN fought a string of right-wing governments that received military backing from the United States.
At the end of the war, the FMLN became a political party, but it failed to win when it fielded former guerrilla leaders as candidates, taking power only after backing a journalist, Mauricio Funes.
Funes launched welfare programs such as free school supplies for students and pensions for the elderly that are popular in a country with a stagnant economy that depends on cash sent home by Salvadorans living in the United States.
Meanwhile, a now two-year-old truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival, Barrio 18, helped cut the number of murders in El Salvador in half from one of the highest homicide rates in the world to a 10-year low in 2013.
A victory by the right could disrupt that fragile truce if the military is used to battle gangs in a strategy that has been used in Mexico and is now also planned in violence-racked neighboring Honduras.
Quijano, 67 and a former dentist who became San Salvador's mayor, pledged to draft unemployed 18- to 30-year-olds into the army and subject them to military courts if they commit crimes.
"Our plan is to use the full power of the state to fight this issue of crime," Quijano told Reuters this week. He believes his plan will entice more investment to lift economic growth.
But many doubt a gang crackdown will reduce crime such as extortion, which remains rampant despite the drop in murders.
"The hard-line did not work in the past," said Ernesto Vilanova, the head of small business group Conapes. "If the new government, whoever it is, does not do something concrete, foreign investment will not come here, nor will jobs."
A distant third-place candidate is Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 until 2009, but his supporters' votes could decide the winner if the election goes to a second round.
Saca broke away from the main right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), which is backing Quijano. Some analysts said Saca's supporters, who are mostly conservative, could migrate to Quijano in a second-round vote.
Orlando Sanchez, a 73-year old bricklayer, believes Arena, which was founded by members who backed death squads during the civil war, would steal public money if it regains power.
"This country is poor because they left it that way," he said as he walked in a park in the capital's historic center.
(Additional reporting by Anahi Rama and Hugo Sanchez; Editing by Simon Gardner and Lisa Shumaker)