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.
The tight race reflects a deeply split society that is only 22 years out from a brutal civil war. Sluggish economic growth and polarized politics have further divided a country where a middle class living in gated communities fears the power of gang members running poor slums.
"We just can't stand the violence any longer. Anywhere you go you are afraid, because they just kill people," said Zoila Guevara, a 35-year old housewife who breastfed her baby as she waited in line to vote for Quijano and his anti-crime plan after polling stations opened.
Sanchez Ceren has rejected plans to use the army to battle crime, and he 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 uniforms and supplies for students and pensions for the elderly, that are popular in a stagnant economy that depends on cash sent home by Salvadorans living in the United States.
Salvador Huezo, a 57-year old security guard, said he was voting for Sanchez Ceren to ensure that the government would keep funding social programs such as the free school supplies.
"You do not have to worry about those expenses, it's a big help," he said.
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 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, Lisa Shumaker and Nick Zieminski)