- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaraguans voted peacefully and in large numbers yesterday in a hotly contested presidential election that had U.S. nemesis and former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega standing at the brink of a return to power.

From the countryside to major cities, voters arrived by car, on foot and even horseback to cast their ballots at polling stations closely monitored by both Nicaraguan and international electoral observers.

With the results of an independent “quick count” expected early today, Mr. Ortega needed 35 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against one of two other major candidates — governing party candidate Jose Rizo and the U.S. favorite, Eduardo Montealegre. Recent opinion polls had Mr. Ortega just short of that mark.

Large numbers of official election observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, reported no particular advantage for any candidate in the heavy and enthusiastic turnout.

In the southern city of Rivas, voters were lined up 20 deep shortly after the polls opened at 7 a.m. By midday, polling stations throughout Central America’s largest country were reporting a strong voter turnout with few setbacks.

There were reports of five polling stations having to close their doors in the northern department of Madriz because of unspecified irregularities. The region was expected to vote heavily in favor of Mr. Rizo, the candidate of the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC).

Pre-election polls had Mr. Rizo running third behind Mr. Ortega, the loser of two previous elections since being defeated in 1990, and Mr. Montealegre, a conservative Harvard-educated banker who split from the ranks of the ruling PLC to form his own party.

“I know that a lot of people are going to be tired from waiting in line,” Mr. Montealegre said yesterday afternoon, imploring Nicaragua’s 2.8 million registered voters to go out and vote.

“They must remember that a lot of people fought, suffered and died so that they could have the right to vote,” he said of the 1980s struggle between Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista-led government and the U.S.-funded Contra rebels. An estimated 30,000 people died in the conflict.

Opponents of Mr. Ortega blame the former president for dragging the country into the civil war with a hard-line Marxist revolution in which he nationalized private land and drove inflation over 30,000 percent before being voted out of office in 1990.

Among the most vocal critics was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, who last week wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warning of the return of a “pro-terrorist” Nicaraguan government with Mr. Ortega at the helm.

During his first go-round as president, Mr. Ortega cultivated ties with both North Korea and Libya.

In the event of an Ortega victory, some U.S. officials have suggested that U.S. aid to Nicaragua be cut and remittances from Nicaraguans living in the United States be forbidden — a move that would cost Nicaragua nearly 20 percent of its gross domestic product.

Poverty is already a top issue in a country where unemployment together with underemployment is estimated at nearly 47 percent and half the country lives below the poverty line.

Mr. Ortega, says he is no longer the fiery leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front that he once was. Campaigning on the slogan, “United, Nicaragua triumphs,” he has called for national reconciliation among the political parties after the election.

“This time things with Daniel [Ortega] won’t be like they were before,” said Modesto Duarte, a 75-year-old farmer from his rural home in the central department of Leon, from where Mr. Ortega hails. “He promised us he’s not the same person he was before — I don’t think he’s tricking us.”

Others are less willing to trust their former president with their future. When asked which candidate would bring jobs to Nicaragua, 29-year-old Lesbia Solis, her two small children in tow, replied: “Anyone but Ortega.”

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