- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — After 16 years and three failed re-election bids, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appears poised to return to power amid jubilation from some and cries of foul play from opponents of the Sandinista leader both here and in Washington.

With 62 percent of the ballots counted, Mr. Ortega had 38 percent of the vote in the Sunday election, nearly eight points more than his closest competitor.

Right-leaning Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated banker backed by the United States, was running second with nearly 30 percent, and former Vice President Jose Rizo was trailing a distant third with about 22 percent.

Estimates by an independent Nicaraguan civic group pronounced Mr. Ortega the early winner, prompting thousands to flood the streets of Managua after the polls closed.

Supporters waved banners and sang choruses of a Spanish version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” the Ortega campaign song.

Mr. Montealegre insisted yesterday that there would be a December runoff.

Nicaraguan law states that a candidate must garner 35 percent of the vote and have a five percentage-point edge over the next leading candidate to win the presidency outright in the first round. Otherwise, a runoff between the top two determines the winner.

Sandinista opposition said there were irregularities at the voting places. The accusation was echoed by the U.S. Embassy, which said Sunday that it had received reports of “some anomalies in the electoral process, including the late opening of [polling stations], the slowness of the voting process, and the premature closing of some [stations].”

The statement angered Roberto Rivas, president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council.

“There is already a statement from the delegation of the United States that is talking of the elections not being transparent,” Mr. Rivas said yesterday on national television. “We had pledged there would be transparent elections, and that is what has happened.”

Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center, said “no major problems” were reported at more than 11,000 polling stations, according to initial observations collected by the group.

The Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former President Jimmy Carter, is scheduled to give its official election assessment today.

Mr. Ortega remained uncharacteristically quiet yesterday. The 60-year-old Sandinista, who led Nicaragua during the 1980s — when the country was plagued by astronomical inflation and a protracted war with U.S.-backed Contra rebels — toned down his hard-line leftist rhetoric during the campaign and preached “unity, for a triumphant Nicaragua.”

He did, at times, return to some of his socialist rhetoric, saying that Nicaraguans had been reduced to “beggars” in the 16 years of democratic rule by the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) and that the country was ripe for a return to the “Sandinista revolution.”

In the eyes of the poor, he has benefited from the support of anti-U.S. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who promised to deliver sharply discounted fuel to Nicaragua in the event of an Ortega victory.

Mr. Ortega’s ties to Mr. Chavez make the U.S. nervous. Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista regime cultivated ties with Libya and North Korea, and the civil war with the Contras killed about 30,000 Nicaraguans.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, 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.

Some American officials have suggested that U.S. aid to Nicaragua be cut and remittance from Nicaraguans living stateside be forbidden. According to a recent report, remittances account for nearly 20 percent of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.

U.S. officials have favored Mr. Montealegre, who split from the PLC to form his own party. Some say the move divided the Nicaraguan opposition to the Sandinista candidate and, in effect, helped him.

Many of those cheering yesterday for Mr. Ortega’s return to power appeared to be in their early 20s and teens.

“We’re giving [Ortega] another opportunity so that he can provide better leadership than he did his first time as president,” said 27-year-old Donaldo Trana, sporting a T-shirt bearing Mr. Ortega’s likeness. “As long as other countries don’t try to intervene, we should be all right.”

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