SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador, Mar 13 (Reuters) While much of Latin America has made a political swing to the left in recent years, El Salvador's former rebels struggled to make gains at municipal and congressional elections.
The leftist ex-guerrillas of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, looked set to retain control of the capital and tie with conservative President Tony Saca's party in Congress, opinion polls showed.
Election results were expected late on Sunday.
El Salvador is perhaps the closest US ally in Latin America, with several hundred troops in Iraq. It is the only Central American country to enact a new regional trade pact with the United States.
Support for the FMLN, which opposes close ties with Washington, has grown since its hard-line leader Schafik Handal died in January.
The absence of communist ex-guerrilla Handal has made the party more palatable to swing voters, but it is still unlikely to make any major gains on Sunday, a recent opinion poll by the University of Central America showed.
''The party has grown after Schafik's death,'' said Rodolfo Cardenal, the university's deputy rector.
Despite its increase in popularity, the FMLN is still hindered by its violent past and is seen in a close race with Saca's Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, in the vote for the 84-seat Congress.
The two parties have roughly the same number of deputies, but ARENA has formed alliances to push through legislation like the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement.
LEFTIST CAPITAL Voters will also choose 262 mayors. The FMLN is expected to keep control of the capital, San Salvador, where its candidate is a moderate ex-rebel aiming to become the first woman to run the city.
The left has criticized Saca, a former sportscaster, for openly campaigning for his party in recent weeks.
''I want to invite you to vote for democracy, for a safe country, for the future of the country, for three years of stability. President Saca has been working for you,'' the president said after voting yesterday.
Saca's party had ties to death squads in the 1980-1992 civil war, one of the bitterest conflicts of the Cold War era.
But he says he is from a new generation of conservatives that has no links to the war.
The rebels fought a series of US-backed right-wing governments and about 75,000 people died.
Former rebel leader Handal died of a heart attack on his way back from Bolivian President Evo Morales' inauguration in January.
Although some were put off by Handal's combative style and leftist views, others saw the ex-rebel as a savior of the poor.
''He was a person who got on well with the most needy people. This country needs personalities like him to change this system which is finishing off the poor,'' said Rodolfo Barraza, 51, after voting.
The ARENA party has ruled El Salvador since peace accords were signed in 1992. The conservatives favor a heavy crackdown on street gangs known as ''maras'' that have unleashed a crime wave.
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