By Nelson Renteria and Anahi Rama
SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A former left-wing guerrilla commander and a conservative rival who wants to use the army to fight powerful street gangs faced off in El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel commander who became a top leader of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during El Salvador's civil war, had a solid lead in polls over Norman Quijano, who stepped down as the capital's mayor to run.
But with three main candidates competing, Sanchez Ceren was expected to fall short of the 50 percent support needed to win outright. If no one wins on Sunday, the two leading candidates will go to a run-off on March 9.
The FMLN, which turned into a political party at the end of the civil war, won the presidency in 2009 and Sanchez Ceren has tried to appeal to moderate voters in this campaign as he looks to keep his party in power.
But the tight race reflects a deep divide that dates back to the brutal 1980-1992 civil war that killed 75,000 people, and sluggish economic growth has contributed to the surge of violent street gangs.
Quijano is the candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and is promising tough policies to crack down on the gangs.
"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 rejects the idea of deploying the army to fight the gangs and instead vows to forge a political pact to break through a gridlock that has kept a divided Congress from carrying out reforms to tackle crime and weak economic growth.
"More than ever we need a new national accord, so that we do not have partisan policies but policies that are backed by all the people of El Salvador," he said after voting on Sunday.
Sanchez Ceren started out as a rural teacher and rose to be a top rebel leader during the civil war, when the FMLN fought a string of U.S.-backed conservative governments.
He attended a mass early on Sunday at the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated at the start of the civil war. Romero, who denounced oppression of the poor by country's military dictators, is a hero of the left.
The FMLN won power at the last election when it put up a popular journalist, Mauricio Funes, as its candidate.
Funes, who had no role in the civil war and has led the FMLN toward more moderate leftist policies, has launched popular welfare programs, such as free school uniforms and supplies for students and pensions for the elderly.
Salvador Huezo, a 57-year old security guard, said he was voting for Sanchez Ceren to ensure the government would keep funding the program to help parents with children at school.
"You do not have to worry about those expenses, it's a big help," he said.
Although many Salvadorans are terrified of the street gangs, a two-year-old truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and its rival, Barrio 18, has helped cut the number of murders 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 the gangs.
Quijano, a 67-year-old former dentist who became San Salvador's mayor, accused the FMLN of making deals with gangs to win votes in areas controlled by the criminal groups after he voted in a Roman Catholic school's basketball gym, surrounded by supporters waving blue, white and red Salvadoran flags.
"Do you want to stay with a government that makes deals with criminals?" Quijano said. "Or do you want a capable person, determined and with a clean record?"
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.
After leaving office, Saca broke away from Arena, which is backing Quijano. Some of Saca's supporters are conservative and could migrate to Quijano in a second-round vote but others may turn to Sanchez Ceren.
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.
El Salvador's economy is heavily reliant on money sent home by migrants living and working in the United States.
(Additional reporting by Hugo Sanchez; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and Nick Zieminski)