SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - El Salvador's ruling leftists suffered a bruising defeat in congressional elections, hurt by frustration with rampant violence in the small, impoverished Central American nation, preliminary results showed on Monday.
The opposition conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was on course to take over as the biggest party in Congress, adding 15 seats for a total of 33 out of 84, with almost all of Sunday's voting counted by the country's supreme electoral tribunal.
The ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, lost four congressional seats to stand at 31 seats, dealing a blow to President Mauricio Funes, a former journalist who in 2009 ended two decades of rule by the ARENA party.
Conservatives also ousted the FMLN from important strongholds, winning key mayoral races that included the major San Salvador suburbs of Soyapango and Mejicanos.
"This is a historic victory," said Norman Quijano, who was re-elected as mayor of the capital. "We have a majority in the assembly and we are going to turn the country around."
The result is likely to make the FMLN dependent on the support of the right-wing Great Alliance for National Unity or GANA, a party formed by dissidents from ARENA during the last legislature, which cost ARENA more than a dozen seats.
GANA, which won 11 seats in the assembly - five seats fewer than it had - has helped the Funes government already.
Funes is the first president from the FMLN, which was founded by Marxist guerrillas who fought in a 12-year long civil war that ended in 1992 and claimed some 75,000 lives.
Nomura analyst Boris Segura said the right will remain divided, with GANA likely to spar with ARENA.
"We think this animosity is unlikely to fizzle in the short term, and will thus avoid major headaches to the Funes administration," Segura said.
Funes has already had help from GANA to pass two fiscal reform bills. Segura said further ambitious reforms were unlikely during Funes' term, and that the stronger ARENA faction could block any bids by the government to tap debt markets.
The opposition's gains in Congress could hobble reform efforts in El Salvador, a coffee and sugar exporting nation of about 6.25 million people. It is still recovering from severe rains that hit last autumn and caused some $900 million in losses and killed more than 30 people.
Senior FMLN lawmakers tried to sound an upbeat note after the results, which also showed ARENA winning 114 of 262 the mayoral races held, compared with 92 for the FMLN.
"We are going to keep backing all the good decisions made by the president. The president and our party are going to sit down, analyze and read into these results," said Sigfrido Reyes, the FMLN leader in congress.
Improving security is likely to remain a priority.
Rising violence, much of it linked to local gangs called Maras with growing ties to Mexican drug traffickers, fuelled a 9 percent jump in the country's murder rate last year.
According to data published by the United Nations, El Salvador has a homicide rate of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest rates in the world.
Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman