The people of El Salvador made history March 15 by electing Mauricio Funes as the country’s next president. Funes’ election marks a seismic political shift in this war-torn and poverty-stricken nation.

Funes, a candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), won with 51.3 percent of the vote beating out Rodrigo Avila with the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party who had 48.7 percent.

ARENA has been in power for 20 years.

Reports indicate that 60 percent of the country’s 4.2 million registered voters went to the polls, 6 percent more than the country’s legislative and municipal elections in January.

Speaking to Salvadorans and American election observers in El Salvador, it was clear there was jubilation throughout the country.

Erick Navarrete, 41, lives in Son Sonate, on the West coast of El Salvador where he works as a customer service representative at a call center. He is also a culinary artist, an English teacher and youth instructor there. Navarrete says he has been involved in politics since he was in his “mother’s stomach.”

He spoke with the World by phone from El Salvador.

“It was a euphoric sensation with a mixture of emotions,” said Navarrete.

“This is a historic moment for everyone and it’s like we are breathing the air of new era in El Salvador with such high emotion, great optimism, hope and enthusiasm,” he said. “We have struggled for too long and this election is a clear indication that we, the voters, want real change.”

The FMLN and ARENA were born in opposition to each other dating back to the 12-year brutal civil war during the 1980s between FMLN guerillas and U.S.-backed far right and military forces, including ARENA. Some 75,000 people died in the war.

Navarrete said Funes demonstrates a willingness to work together with the opposition and put ideological differences aside and focus on what’s important to the majority of people.

Funes represents that change and his leadership is an example for the people who elected him,” he said.

The reality in El Salvador is people are undergoing a lot of turmoil especially with the growing global economic recession, he said, and it’s no secret that the economic situation goes hand in hand with the high rate of violence and crime.

Over half of Salvadorans live in poverty. An estimated one-quarter of El Salvador’s population lives in the U.S. The remittances they send back account for 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

“Now we are entering a difficult path but we will overcome it as long as we work together constructively because we need reform now more than ever,” Navarrete said.

Sociology Professor Christina Perez led a group of 20 students and faculty members from Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., to El Salvador to be international election monitors. Perez also spoke with the World on the phone from the state of Cuscatlan.

Perez said the observers’ presence made a huge difference in being able to monitor the elections.

“Overall the process was very peaceful and transparent,” said Perez. “There were some attempts of fraud and irregularities on the part of ARENA, but in the end those failed.”

Another team of observers from the U.S., Rossana and Arturo Cambron said they were assigned a location where all the voters who came from outside of El Salvador were to go. “The ARENA party said they expected 40,000 people. They never came close to it. The total vote count was 294 — 162 votes for FMLN and 132 for ARENA,” they said in an e-mail. ARENA had been accused of bussing in Hondurans and others from neighboring countries to vote.

But, Rossana Cambron said the Salvadorans were ready for any kind of dirty tricks or vote theft.

“Last night we witnessed a truck load of poor people from Guatemala being brought to a local address nearby our hotel. It was a sad thing to see them being used this way. The truck was not able to unload them and they sped away with many FMLN following close behind.”

The Cambrons and Perez said people are extremely excited and jubilant.

‘On election night people everywhere were waving their FMLN flags in the streets and celebrated with music and fireworks,” Perez said.

Speaking to reporters on election night Funes promised to create a broad government that will work with the opposition forces and seeks a close working relationship with the United States. He vowed to champion the cause of El Salvador’s struggling poor. “Hope is born” was Funes’ campaign slogan.

“From this moment on, I invite the different social and political forces to build this unity together. The time has come for the excluded, the opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity,” Funes said.

Hector Perla is a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz in the Latin American and Latino Studies department. Perla’s parents are from El Salvador. He recently traveled there with a team of scholars to monitor the election process weeks before Election Day.

Perla said the FMLN victory was bittersweet because he wished his father were still alive to witness the historic win. Perla’s mother did however arrive in El Salvador the weekend before the election to cast her vote for the FMLN.

Perla notes that not only has the ARENA party and the right-wing held power for the last 20 years but such forces, including military rule were dominant since 1932.

“Direct exploitation of indigenous and poor communities in El Salvador has been around since colonial times up through the civil war in the 1980s,” he said.

“This is the beginning of breaking that chain,” said Perla. “Now the hard part begins in how to govern effectively that transforms the political direction of the country and addresses the leading causes of poverty and social inequalities.”