- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Months of campaigning for Nicaragua’s presidency has ended in a flurry of fireworks and flowery rhetoric from supporters of Daniel Ortega, the one-time Sandinista leader and Washington headache who appears poised for a comeback on Sunday.

Thousands of Ortega supporters paraded through the streets of Managua this week, waving banners for his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and sporting his “pink tide” hats espousing a return to the party’s leftist ideals.

But the modern-day Mr. Ortega — a balding, pudgier version of the young firebrand who led the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979 — appears to have mellowed a bit, and in doing so, has garnered just about enough support to win Sunday’s election without a runoff.

Aged 60, the FSLN leader who during the 1980s presided over the Sandinista fight against the U.S.-funded Contra rebels now preaches “unity for a triumphant Nicaragua” and has embraced his one-time rivals.

His running mate is none other than Jaime Morales Carazo, a former top Contra political negotiator, nicknamed “the godfather,” whose home was seized by the Sandinistas. Mr. Ortega lives there to this day.

Mr. Ortega has also promised to honor the basic principles of the country’s free market approach to economic development. In a ceremony Wednesday — the last day of official campaigning — he signed an agreement with officials at the Ministry of Commerce pledging to respect its 10-point approach to rectifying the financial woes of the region’s poorest countries.

Along with embracing his political adversaries and cozying up to economic officials, the media-savvy Mr. Ortega knows the importance of playing to the country’s poor, telling Nicaraguans they have been reduced to “beggars” during the last 16 years of democratic rule.

All that has pushed Mr. Ortega to the top of a crowded field. Recent polls show him just shy of securing enough votes to win outright on Sunday.

To avoid a second election, a candidate must garner 35 percent of the vote and be at least five percentage points ahead of the next leading candidate.

Some analysts are predicting a first-round win for Mr. Ortega, while others think he will fall short, forcing a runoff between the two top vote-getters in December.

“Polling in Nicaragua is rarely accurate and always a ‘work in progress,’ ” noted Manuel Orozco, an analyst with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

If he can’t secure a victory in the first round, then Mr. Ortega would face a tough battle against either Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre, who split from the ranks of the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to form his own party, or former vice president and PLC candidate Jose Rizo. Mr. Montealegre has the support of the United States.

Edmundo Jarquin, a former economist with the Inter-American Development Bank who heads a dissident social democratic campaign that rivals the FSLN on the left, poses little threat to the FSLN leader, but he could siphon off just enough votes to deny Mr. Ortega a first-round victory.

But Mr. Ortega’s opponents aren’t ready to concede defeat.

“It’s going to be a very close race,” said Terencio Garcia, a lawyer in Managua who is an adviser to the Rizo campaign. He predicted that the PLC candidate would emerge from the first round and contest Mr. Ortega for the presidency next month, provided the Sandinista doesn’t resort to “dirty tricks” on election day.

Mr. Rizo has the added burden of the U.S. support for Mr. Montealegre.

Thousands of electoral officials from Nicaragua, the Carter Center, headed by former President Jimmy Carter, and the European Union, will be on hand to monitor every polling station. A national fraud, said one electoral observer, would be “highly unlikely with the number of people that will be watching the ballot boxes.”

“Ortega was ripe for being denied [the presidency],” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, noting the former leader has already lost the last two presidential elections. “Now, if he wins, there’s no telling what he’s going to do.”

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