"From now begins a new chapter in the history of El Salvador. The victory of the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] presidential team is based on the whole Salvadoran people", Salvador Sanchez Ceren, newly elected vice-president for the FMLN, told a cheering crowd of thousands of red T-shirt-wearing party supporters at a huge rally on the night of the March 15 presidential elections.
FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes defeated the candidate of the governing right-wing Arena party, Rogrigo Avilo, ending Arena's more than two decades in power.
In 1992, peace accords brought to a close the FMLN's armed struggle against US-backed military dictatorships, opening the way for it to participate in elections.
"This is a historic struggle lasting more than 20 years. We are going to work with all the sectors. We are going to unify", Sanchez Ceren said.
"Today we have demonstrated our power. The FMLN is in a party mood."
Wild celebrations began early in the evening throughout El Salvador once it became clear that the FMLN would defeat Arena, which has ruled with massive repression and corruption.
Official figures released by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), with around 99% of the vote counted, gave the FMLN 1,349,142 votes, or 51.3%, to Arena's 1,280,995 votes, or 48.7%.
There is no question that the real margin for the FMLN would have been higher if not for systematic electoral fraud by Arena, which controls the TSE and manipulated the electoral roll to permit bogus voting on a large scale.
Considerable evidence, collected by international electoral observers on polling day, indicates that many thousands of citizens of neighbouring Central American countries, particularly Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, were brought across the border by Arena to vote with fraudulent identity documents.
Arena organised the manufacture of false identity documents in the names of dead people, prisoners and El Salvadorans living overseas to allow the foreigners to vote. Arena also produced duplicate documents to permit double-voting in many cases.
The FMLN will follow up specific allegations as part of preparing a thorough reform of the electoral system.
Our own experience as international observers included investigating a huge concentration of 10,000 Arena supporters in the Cuscatlan Stadium in San Salvador, who were billeted there before election day, and transported in hundreds of buses and minibuses to the electoral centres on March 15.
Substantial evidence exists that many of these people were fraudulent voters from Honduras.
The existence of major electoral fraud only makes the achievement of the FMLN in winning the presidential election even more significant.
It opens the way for dramatic democratisation and social change in an impoverished nation that has been a symbol for decades of the popular struggle of the Central American peoples against US-backed repressive regimes.
Funes expressed the elation and relief of many Salvadoran people when he told the rally of FMLN supporters on election night, "Tonight holds the same feeling of hope and reconciliation that made the peace accord".
"Today represents the signing of a new peace accord, of reconciliation of the country ... as we said throughout the campaign."
He repeated his invitation "to the different social and political forces to construct this unity together, based on tolerance, respect for differences and identification of our common objectives".
Funes argued: "My government will be motivated by the spirit of national unity, and I ask everyone to leave aside confrontation ... We will take the decisions that are necessary to confront the crisis of the country."
Funes said his government would seek to implement polices to benefit the majority of the population, especially the excluded sections.
"I will work for the general well-being", he said, according to the March 16 Diaria De Hoy. "Our proposal is to construct an El Salvador with the most dynamic economy in Central America.
"I want to convert myself into a president of peace, of unity and progress. I want to be the president of social justice, and of a real reconstruction of the country."
Funes stated he intended to follow the path advocated by Archbishop Oscar Romero — murdered by pro-government death squads in 1980, of "a preferential option for the poor".
Among the first international leaders to congratulate Funes and Sanchez Ceren was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Other Latin American leaders have recognised the importance of the El Salvadoran result as a crucial victory for democracy in the region.
In a March 15 statement, Chavez welcomed "the unquestionable and resounding victory of brave journalist Mauricio Funes and the FMLN".
With the Arena government the latest of a series of US-backed regimes to fall in recent years, Chavez commented: "This victory strengthens the historic wave that, in this first decade of the 21st century, has arisen in all of Latin America and the Caribbean."
Chavez argued that "the unity of our peoples is the only path to overcome the crisis unleashed from the heart of capitalism in the North".
He offered "solidarity to President Mauricio Funes, so that together we may advance in the strengthening of this new era we are living through, together overcoming under-development and poverty".
[Jim McIlroy and Coral Wynter are members of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]