El Salvador's right-wing opposition party appeared headed for victory Monday in legislative and municipal elections, dealing a blow to leftist President Salvador Sanchez Ceren in his final year of office.
The Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) party began celebrating as a vote count showed it well ahead of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party with 65.1 percent of the ballots counted.
The preliminary returns showed its candidate for mayor of San Salvador, Ernesto Muyshondt, defeating the FMLN's Jackeline Rivera.
"We are going to put the mayor's office of San Salvador at the service of the people and we are going to undertake public projects that will transform San Salvador," Muyshondt said during a victory celebration at his party's headquarters.
Analyst Roberto Canas said the FMLN should "reflect deeply on the causes of the defeat."
Police and soldiers were deployed across the Central American country to provide security for Sunday's vote, the ninth since a 1992 peace accord ended a bloody 12-year civil war.
About 5.1 million voters were eligible to take part, but turnout appeared low -- something an electoral official described as "normal" for legislative and municipal polls, for which turnout has never topped 50 percent.
With 65.1 percent of the total votes counted, ARENA had 557,671 votes to the FMLN's 328,818, according to the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The two parties were deadly opponents during the civil war, when guerrilla groups under the banner of the FMLN fought a succession of US-backed governments. ARENA was co-founded in 1981 by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a soldier linked to right-wing death squads.
At stake are all 84 seats in the single-chamber Congress as well as mayoralties and council seats in the tiny country's 262 municipalities.
If the preliminary results hold, Sanchez Ceren will be markedly weakened as he finishes his term.
The new elected officials will take up their positions on May 1.
In the current Congress, ARENA has a slight majority, with 35 seats to the FMLN's 31. Three other parties hold 18 seats.
That has forced Sanchez Ceren to negotiate to pass legislation.
He has succeeded in getting the Congress to fund certain popular social programs like free lunches and school supplies for public school students.
But ARENA has blocked borrowing for public works programs and forced cuts in spending in the 2018 budget.
Analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez said the government functions because it has "the maturity to negotiate, to dialogue and not to try to impose its will on a sometimes capricious opposition."
"The government is in the final stretch. So if it wants to finish well, it must be agile and dialogue not only with the legislative assembly but with the other forces in society," he said.
Sanchez Ceren needs the support of the legislature to put through laws aimed at cutting crime that has engulfed the country in recent years.
El Salvador's murder rate in 2017 was one of the highest in the world at 60 homicides per 100,000 people.
And although that is an improvement over 2015, when the murder rate spiked to 103 per 100,000 people, El Salvador is still one of the world's most violent countries, in large part due to the presence of the feared MS-13 and Barrio 18 transnational gangs.