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Leftist making bid to lead El Salvador

By wire services
Published March 21, 2004

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Schafik Handal spent most of his life as a Communist Party activist, but he sought to distance himself from that past during his campaign as one of the two front-runners in today's presidential election.

With communism a sensitive issue in this Central American nation just 12 years after a civil war, Handal hoped a more moderate stance would cut into support for broadcaster Tony Saca, whose conservative National Republican Alliance has won every presidential vote since 1989.

Most published polls gave the edge to Saca, but one released last week had the two men in a dead heat. Two other candidates are in the race, and if no one gains 50 percent of the votes, a runoff will be held May 2.

The 73-year-old Handal, the candidate of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, laid out a moderate liberal platform. He said he wants to continue good relations with the United States and vowed to be tough on crime.

He also promised to pull Salvadoran troops from the U.S.-led occupation force in Iraq and to renew diplomatic ties with Cuba's communist regime. And he called for raising taxes on the rich to finance social programs for the poor.

Saca, 39, campaigned for a free trade agreement with the United States and said Friday that he would appoint a top aide to help Salvadoran migrants, who send home more than $2-billion a year from the United States.

Saca's supporters, meanwhile, kept reminding people of Handal's past, portraying him as a communist kidnapper rooted in violence. Handal called it a futile scare tactic.

"They have populated the atmosphere with ghosts," Handal said Friday.

Security increased for Malaysian leader

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Security was increased Saturday around Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on the last day of campaigning for elections.

The extra security in response to Friday's assassination attempt in Taiwan was just a precaution, and no violence was expected surrounding today's election, the Associated Press reported, citing a senior aide to Abdullah who was not identified.

Officials said campaigning was subdued Saturday because candidates were weary after a flurry of activity in recent days and wanted to consolidate their home turf.

Abdullah told a rally of about 500 supporters that the government had calculated that foreign investors would pour an additional $7.8-billion into the equity market if he was elected, and urged voters to stick with his prodevelopment government.

"So what's your choice?" Abdullah said. "If you are not going to give me a strong mandate, I don't know what will happen. This is not a threat, I am just stating the facts."

Abdullah's ruling National Front coalition is defending a huge majority and is certain to be returned to power. But Abdullah is seeking to reverse gains made by the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party in 1999 elections.

French vote today in regional elections

PARIS - With terrorism on voters' minds, the French regional elections today and March 28 are shaping up as a referendum on the government of conservative Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The French go to the polls a week after voters in neighboring Spain toppled the conservative government in the wake of Madrid bombings that killed more than 200 people.

Corruption scandals, labor woes and a stagnant economy have contributed to a malaise that could hurt the governing Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, the party of President Jacques Chirac.

"If the right loses by a lot, you could say that the future of Raffarin would be at risk," said Jean-Francois Doridot, director of political studies at Ipsos polling firm.

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]

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