El Salvador Supreme Electoral Court says that with nearly 80 percent of ballots counted, Nayib Bukele had 53 percent of the votes.
A former mayor of El Salvador's capital took a strong lead in early returns from Sunday's presidential election, standing 21 points ahead of his nearest rival as he sought to end a quarter century of two-party dominance in the crime-plagued Central America nation.
The Supreme Electoral Court said that with nearly 80 percent of ballots counted, Nayib Bukele had 53 percent of the votes. Carlos Callejas of the Nationalist Republican Alliance was in second with 32 percent, while even farther back were former Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and a minor party candidate.
Bukele needed 50 percent of the votes to avoid a March runoff. He claimed victory before a jubilant crowd in the capital, noting that he was getting more votes than his closest two competitors combined.
All four candidates promised to end corruption, stamp out gang violence and create more jobs, with crushing crime at the top of the agenda.
Roughly 67,000 Salvadorans belong to gangs that terrorise their communities with extortion, murder and other forms of violence.
The candidates have proposed creating economic opportunities and restoring social values to dissuade Salvadorans from engaging in criminal behavior.
Turnout appeared to be heavy in early voting, with no reports of major problems.
Who is Neyib Bukele?
A former mayor of capital San Salvador, Bukele is of Palestinian descent. His father was a prominent businessman and a local imam.
He traces his origin back to a family that immigrated to the Central American country from Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century.
Bukele, 37, made his political debut in 2012 as a small-town mayor with the now-governing FMLN and won election in the capital three years later, automatically making him a potential presidential contender.
But his frequent criticism of the leftist party's leadership led to his expulsion, and he wound up as the unlikely standard-bearer of a small conservative party known as the Grand Alliance for National Unity, whose initials — GANA — mean "win" in Spanish.
Bukele’s election campaign included promises to fight corruption and end gang violence.
Bukele took to social media Sunday to urge Salvadorans to vote. "Let's save our country a second run" at the polls, he said. Speaking to reporters after casting his own vote, he lashed out against his opponents' political parties, calling them "corrupt."
The FMLN and the conservative Alliance, known as ARENA, have dominated Salvadoran politics since a 1992 peace deal that ended a brutal civil war. But both parties have been stained by corruption scandals and neither has been able to stem gang violence.
"I came to vote because I want the country to change, because we are tired of so much corruption," said Estela Henriquez, 27, at a polling place in the capital.
More than 4,500 election observers, including representatives of the Organization of American States and the European Union, were on hand.
El Salvador is small both in size and population, with just 6.5 million people. Close to a third of its households live in poverty, while the World Bank says per capita income is $3,560.
Salvadorans searching for a better life have joined recent caravans of migrants trekking through Mexico toward the US.