El Salvador vote recount under way as both candidates claim victory

Opposition supporters in El Salvador Opposition demonstrators have taken to the streets of San Salvador to complain of electoral fraud

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A vote recount is under way in El Salvador, where the electoral authorities said the presidential election was too close to call.

Preliminary results suggest left-wing candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren has a lead of 0.22 percentage points over his conservative rival Norman Quijano.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal asked the candidates to refrain from claiming victory, which both had done on Sunday.

El Salvador remains deeply divided 22 years after the end of its civil war.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal president Eugenio Chicas said there were "discrepancies" in the tallies of 14 ballot boxes, which will be reviewed.

"El Salvador will be an example of transparency. We will give the people the legitimacy it demands from these elections by recounting every single vote," said Mr Chicas.

He said it could take until Thursday to confirm the official results.

'Court bias'

But Mr Sanchez Ceren has reaffirmed that he won the vote, renewing calls for Mr Quijano to join him in the new administration and "together build a new country".

"The men and women of El Salvador are the ones who decide, and if you don't accept the result, you are violating the will of the people," said Mr Sanchez Ceren.

Sanchez Ceren, 10 March 2014 Mr Sanchez Ceren was one of the top five rebel leaders during the country's civil war

His opponent has also refused to concede. Mr Quijano called on the Salvadoran people to defend his victory and said the armed forces were "aware of this fraud that is taking place".

He also questioned the impartiality of the country's top electoral court and said the Prosecutor's Office should take over the recount process.

"The Supreme Tribunal Electoral has been biased all along.

"In our count, we have won the vote. We are asking for the international observers to remain in El Salvador for a few more days," Mr Quijano wrote in his Twitter account.

Political rift

The poll reflects the deep political rift that still divides the Central American nation more than two decades after the end of its civil war.

Mr Sanchez Ceren's party, the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), turned from a rebel group into a political party at the end of El Salvador's civil war (1980-92).

Sanchez Ceren supporters Government supporters celebrated the preliminary results giving Mr Sanchez Ceren a tight victory

When the FMLN won the 2009 presidential election, Mauricio Funes became president and Mr Sanchez Ceren was named vice-president.

Mr Funes was a journalist who was sympathetic to the FMLN rebels during the civil war but was never a guerrilla.

If Mr Sanchez Ceren were to be declared the winner, he would become the first former rebel to serve as El Salvador's president.

With the preliminary count finished, Mr Sanchez Ceren had 50.11% of the vote, ahead of Mr Quijano, of the Arena party, who won 49.89%, according to the electoral authorities.

Mr Chicas urged the two parties to wait for the official tally.

"This tribunal recommends and orders that no party declare itself winner given such close results," he said in a TV and radio address.

El Salvador's presidential candidate for the National Republican Alliance party, Norman Quijano, gestures to his supporters after receiving the voting results during the presidential election run-off in San Salvador on 9 March, 2014 Mr Quijano, a law and order champion, served as mayor of the capital, San Salvador

"There is a difference of 6,357 votes. Of course that could be irreversible, but we can only confirm that in the final tally," he added.

Mr Sanchez Ceren, 69, had been widely tipped to win after his comfortable lead in the first round, during which he just fell short of the 50% needed to win outright.

But his rival made significant gains in the past weeks.

Controversial truce

Mr Quijano, 67, softened his rhetoric from one of cracking down on the country's infamous street gangs to advocating the rehabilitation of those young people caught up in gang life.

El Salvador has one of the world's highest murder rates, largely blamed on the street gangs, known as maras.

A tattoo is pictured on the head of a gang member during an event where gangs signed a truce in the municipality of Ciudad Delgado, in San Salvador in this May 29, 2013 file photo How to deal with the country's street gangs has been one of the most contentious issues in the campaign

In 2012, the FMLN government facilitated a truce between the country's two biggest gangs.

The truce between the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang initially reduced El Salvador's murder rates but there are signs that the deal is falling apart.

Mr Sanchez Ceren tried to distance his campaign from the plan, which is unpopular with many Salvadorans, says the BBC's Central America correspondent Will Grant.

The winning candidate will face the challenge of reviving a sluggish economy and reducing the country's high poverty levels.

The new president will be sworn in on 1 June for a five-year term.

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