SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — The top commanders of El Salvador's armed forces said Wednesday they will stay out of a presidential election dispute that pits a conservative candidate against a former leader of the leftist rebels the army fought in a 12-year civil war.
Conservative ARENA party candidate Norman Quijano is organizing Venezuela-style protests against preliminary returns from Sunday's ballot that gave leftist candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren a razor-thin 0.2-percent margin. Quijano claims fraud was committed but he has presented no evidence.
Quijano had called on the army to defend against the alleged fraud, but the defense minister, Gen. David Munguia Payes, and the army's top commanders said at a news conference that they're staying out of the dispute.
"We are committed to respecting the official results that are issued by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal," Munguia Payes said. "We repeat that we are committed to strictly respecting the sovereign decision that the people of El Salvador expressed at the ballot box."
Quijano's suggestion of military intervention had called up echoes of the country's 1980-92 war, when 76,000 people died in fighting between the military and leftists rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. After peace accords ended the conflict in 1992, the FMLN turned into a political party and won the presidency in 2009 with a candidate who had not been a rebel fighter.
If his victory is confirmed, Sanchez Ceren would be the first former rebel commander to win the presidency.
Some Salvadorans thought having an ex-rebel as president might make the army uncomfortable, but Munguia Payes said such fears "ignore the level of professionalism that the armed forces have achieved."
"No type of coup or conspiracy is being planned," he said. "We are an essentially obedient force, not a decision-making force."
FMLN leaders had no comment Wednesday. They said earlier they would wait for the final election results to be announced.
As the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the country's top electoral agency, continued with the vote count Wednesday, Quijano's supporters banged empty pots in protests, something done often in protests against Venezuela's socialist government.
"We're not leaving. They're not going to steal these elections from us," said Julia Perdomo, 43, a small business owner who supports Quijano, the former mayor of San Salvador, the capital.
Quijano said Wednesday that electoral authorities didn't allow several of his campaign advertisements to run and charged that members of the FMLN were allowed to vote twice, but he presented no evidence to back up his claims.
In addition to charging fraud, Quijano claims the electoral tribunal has not been impartial and favors the FMLN, again without providing evidence.
His supporters are demanding a vote-by-vote recount, while authorities plan to only recount votes at about 21 polling places, which wouldn't be enough to alter the final results.
The nation's three biggest political parties and the Supreme Court played roles in picking the tribunal. The court, which is widely considered non-partisan, proposed two of the five magistrates, and the parties each put up one member. The National Assembly, in which no party has a majority, approved the electoral tribunal members.
Quijano called on his supporters to remain peaceful.
"We have to increase the social pressure, but, I insist, peacefully, without violence, without sticks or stones," he told the crowd of ARENA protesters in the capital.
ARENA supporters also blocked a main highway with burning tires Wednesday. The mayor of the city of Ilopango, Salvador Ruano, who led the protest, said that "we are prepared to die" to defend the party's claimed victory.